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Suzy M. Nelson, formerly the associate dean of students for fraternity and sorority affairs at Cornell, will come to Harvard next week as the College’s new associate dean of residential life.
Nelson will step into a role similar to the one previously held by Thomas A. Dingman ’67, who took over as Dean of Freshmen this July. As an associate dean of the College, Dingman had oversight of upperclassmen residential life and reported to the deputy dean of the College.
As dean of freshmen, Dingman and his associate deans, as well as the House Masters, will report to Nelson, whose new post has combined oversight of upperclass House life as well as freshmen in the Yard.
As the College takes steps to improve social life on campus and to expand across the river, Nelson will be in a position of considerable influence, charged with overseeing aspects of residential planning in Allston as well as integrating freshmen into House life.
“In her new role, Suzy will oversee all matters relating to Harvard’s freshman dormitories and its 12 residential Houses,” Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71 said in a statement. “While ensuring that all Houses and dorms offer services of consistently high quality, she will help plan for upcoming housing changes due to expanded study abroad programs as well as the possible construction of new Houses in Allston.”
Apart from long-term planning, Nelson will also deal with day-to-day affairs of the College, such as improving handicapped access on campus and occupancy issues.
“Her primary focus will be on the day-to-day support for the masters and the senior tutors and working on this issue of appropriate occupancy for the college,” Dingman said in a telephone interview. “The question is whether in fact that is the right number, whether there’s more flexibility and whether all the houses have the same amount of elbow room and suites.”
Nelson, who replaces Dingman as chair to the Committee on House Life (CHL), will also work closely with the Undergraduate Council’s Student Affairs Committee (SAC) to implement proposals—such as housing neighborhoods—intended to improve student life, SAC Chair Aaron D. Chadbourne ’06 said.
As dean of residential life, Nelson hopes to focus on the nexus of academic and personal experiences in undergraduates’ lives. “My foremost priority for the upcoming year and beyond is to create a student-centered experience for undergraduates that promotes their learning, personal development and health and well being,” Nelson wrote in an e-mail. “One of the most effective ways to do this is to actively engage students in shaping their campus experience and to provide them with support and guidance.”
Nelson’s appointment, originally reported by the Cornell Daily Sun, comes as part of the ongoing restructuring of the College. While some University Hall administrators have departed and some have been shuffled into new positions, Gross announced this past year a number of appointments and posts intended to help manage undergraduate life.
Last year, the College saw the appointment of a Campus Life Fellow to expand social options on campus, the creation of an alcohol “czar” to oversee alcohol and substance abuse services, and the formation of a sub-committee that examined topics such as the role of single-sex organizations on campus.
“This is really a new position, unifying the Houses and the Yard,” Gross said in January of the dean of residential life, noting then that he wanted the training and organization of freshman proctors and residential tutors in Houses to come from the same office.
Nelson has served as associate dean for Greek affairs at Cornell since 1998, overseeing the registration, recognition, and advisement of 67 fraternities and sororities with around 3,500 students each year. Prior to her stint at Cornell, Nelson, who has been working in higher education for almost two decades, was the director of the Office of Greek Life at Syracuse University.
Undergraduate Council president Matthew J. Glazer ‘06 said that Nelson’s extensive experience with Greek life will likely be an asset in her role as the new dean of residential life.
“She was very successful at dealing with fraternity and sorority communities [at Cornell],” Glazer said. “Even though we don’t have such prevalent Greek life on campus, I think it’s important that she’s had that experience working with students on campus.”
“Even though she’s going to be focusing on the residential life at the college, it’s most important to me that she’s had all that experience working and being in contact with students,” he said.
Glazer said that Nelson’s greatest challenge may not be long-term physical planning in Allston, but rather building student community—an aspect of the Harvard undergraduate experience that Glazer and others say needs improvement.
“I think in terms of residential issues that need to be focused on are the integration of bridging the gap between freshman year and house life, that needs to be improved, and building a house community within the houses,” Glazer said.
Colleagues and students alike describe Nelson as a sensible administrator with a collaborative leadership style.
Former president of the Interfraternity Council Jeffrey P. Massa, who graduated from Cornell this spring, said that while many may have perceived Nelson as having a largely distant role as a disciplinarian, she was very supportive of the Greek system at Cornell.
“There have been numerous times where the University questions what we do, and Suzy’s always been the level-headed spokesperson for our Greek system in favor of the positive opportunities one has in terms of being a member of a fraternity or sorority,” he said.
Students and colleagues at Cornell also describe Nelson as the backbone of the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Affairs (OFSA) at Cornell and credit Nelson for helping to implement “Creating Chapters of Excellence,” a program that facilitates community service and cultural awareness initiatives on campus.
“She came in when the OFSA was virtually a brand new office. She basically started from scratch and helped make the Greek system here what it is—one of the strongest and the second largest Greek system in the country,” said Ashley L. Higgins, a Cornell senior and president of the school’s Panhellenic Association. “Suzy helped envision a new structure on how to help the [Greek] community relate better to themselves as well as to the university.”
And a handful of Harvard undergraduates who had the opportunity to meet Nelson this summer as she entered her final round of interviews identified her extensive student experience as a strength.
“On several issues Dean Nelson was able to articulate the student opinion. One example was her understanding of the students’ want of freedom at events such as Harvard-Yale,” SAC member J. Sawalla Guseh ’06 wrote in an e-mail. “I am confident that being able to see from the student perspective is something that will set her aside from other administrators.”
Deputy Dean of the College Patricia O’Brien, who is also the co-master of Currier House, coordinated the search for the new dean of residential life.
—Staff writer Margaret W. Ho can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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