Nexus Summer 2019 cover

Most people 20 years ago thought community colleges were there for this region only, but we’re not going to service this community well if we aren’t looking at the whole world. We’ve built a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship.

Tim Nelson

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Man On A Mission

Retiring president oversaw an era of innovation and entrepreneurship

Nexus Spring 2020 Cover Feature

It’s no simple task to sum up the impact of nearly two decades spent in an all-consuming job leading an institution that’s not only a regional cornerstone, but one that’s emerging onto national and
even international stages.

Complexity has never fazed Northwestern Michigan College President Timothy J. Nelson, however, and his living legacy is as handy as the college’s mission, vision and values document, which hangs on the wall of almost every campus building.

“One of the most important things we did, and I think that we’re pretty good at living by it, is that we articulated these values that are on the wall,” said Nelson, who will pass by the copy hanging in his Tanis Building conference room for the last time December 31, when he retires after a nearly 19-year tenure.

When reflecting on a career, it’s common to be asked about moments—milestones, benchmarks, turning points. But though Nelson’s presidency has included plenty of those, from transforming multiple campuses to new programs and degrees, including Michigan’s first community college baccalaureate, for him, leadership has always been as much about the process as the outcomes.

NMC’s mission, vision and values and five strategic directions, which are connected to the regional economy and assets, are the principles guiding the processes. To Nelson, they’re critical organizational infrastructure. Undergirding many of the values and strategic directions are the concepts of entrepreneurship and innovation. Nelson brought these to NMC from his experience creating three businesses in the private sector.

“Entrepreneurship and innovation are ways to change into the future,” Nelson said.

Entrepreneurship And Innovation Unleash Success

Cultivating that mindset can be a challenge in higher education, generally regarded as a field that values stability, Nelson said. But meeting that challenge is also among the most rewarding parts of the job.

“(What’s rewarding is) I think, first of all, watching people succeed, whether those are students or employees. Watching their curiosity, watching them turn their curiosity into something new. And building something that you think has some ability to persist, to sustain.”

That process of empowerment has led to some truly pioneering outcomes that launched under Nelson’s leadership.

“You don’t get anyplace by yourself,” Nelson said. “There are more people that have engaged in this.”

Specifically, he pointed to:

  • NMC’s international partnership in marine technology and construction technology with Yellow River Conservancy Technical Institute in Kaifeng, China
  • Comprehensive unmanned systems programs (aerial, ground and marine) which led to new agricultural applications partnerships with Michigan State University, among others
  • Military and veterans services, in which NMC has ranked as the second “Best for Vets” community college in the country for two consecutive years
  • Short-term study abroad (No. 1 in Michigan, No. 17 nationally)
  • Professional development investment. NMC consistently ranks in the top 94-95 percent for community colleges
  • Experiential learning. Earlier this year, NMC was one of only four community colleges invited to an EL training at Stanford University

Tim Nelson at commencement“I’m really encouraged by the work in experiential learning,” said Nelson, noting how EL’s do-to-learn principles have spread across academic disciplines and into staff operations.

With the benefit of 20 years of hindsight and the weight of accolades, it seems obvious to aim the college in those directions, developing programs and initiatives not traditionally considered part of a community college’s purview. But widening the lens of “community” beyond the Grand Traverse region wasn’t always easy, and is in fact an outcome in its own right.

Community = Global

The original geographic jurisdiction is right there in the name, “Northwestern Michigan” College. Twenty-six of Michigan’s 28 community colleges are similarly named for a region or county. For Nelson, while what’s often called the college’s “service area” may start regionally, it certainly doesn’t stop there.

“We have made a big investment in programs, program development, and thinking differently on what the overall role of a community college is,” Nelson said. “We have a role in connecting beyond this region.”

tim-nelson-and-nancy-johnson.jpgNelson has put his money where his mouth is. In 2011, to celebrate his 10th anniversary as president as well as NMC’s 60th anniversary, he and his wife Nancy Johnson created the Global Opportunities Scholarship. So far, more than 250 students have used it to visit 17 different countries.

“Our geography is the world. I think that we have done a good job in terms of investing in technology, the equipment and resources, that are required to have a world-class education. I think we’ve redefined what community means to this community college,” Nelson said.

Beyond The Tanis Building

That redefinition has been another process, this one ongoing. And that suits Nelson just fine.

“It would be boring to manage a system that’s just going to be static. So look around. What’s needed? How can you improve things? What can you do? What can you try? Those are the things that give me energy,” Nelson said.

In retirement, he hopes to be more selective about identifying which energy-delivering opportunities he’ll pursue. Traveling with Nancy—whose tireless, unpaid advocacy on behalf of the college merits her unofficial title “Mrs. President”—and writing are two likely possibilities. As an Eagle Scout since the age of 16, Nelson, now 67, also feels good about leaving his campsite—NMC—better than he found it.

“I think the college is at a good platform for this next run. Financially healthy, the facilities are good, the people are creating programs, they’re focused on the right things. You know I’ll watch from afar. I’m grateful and it’s been a wonderful opportunity.”

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