Home Campus Q&A: See where Pres. Duane Nellis stands on campus politics

Q&A: See where Pres. Duane Nellis stands on campus politics

13 min read
Duane Nellis, Board of Trustee Appointment Announcement

We asked, he answered. Ohio University’s new president gave his thoughts on protests, climate change, rape culture and more during our Q&A. 

In one sentence, what can students expect from your presidency?

I want to be visible and engaged.

You’ve talked about your overarching goals in terms of reaching a higher level of national excellence. What are your short-term goals to get us there?

Part of these rankings relate to perception. There are a lot of things we do well already, but I’m not sure how well the public knows about that. So in our market positioning and branding, I want to be a leader in getting the word out about what a great place this is. Not that there’s a negative perception about Ohio University, but I think we can make a difference in how people perceive us nationally. Certainly, we want to look carefully at what we’re doing and what we can do better.

How will OU adapt, especially in terms of resources and housing, to a growing number of students?

I want to hear input on that. I’m not necessarily saying we need to grow, although I do think we need to have strategic growth in critical areas when we have the ability to accommodate those students. So we need to think carefully about that, and that’s really where I wanted to get input on campus, and in the Athens community as well. So I need to understand that more fully.

Over the past year, in light of the national administration’s policies, a lot of students at OU staged high-intensity protests. As president, how would you diffuse that tension while still respecting freedom of speech?

So, first let me answer the second part of that, which is that I’m strongly committed to first amendment rights and freedom of speech. I want to be very respectful of that. For me, part of it is this whole area of accessibility and engagement and visibility. When students have concerns, I hope they’ll feel open to express those to me in a constructive way where we can have dialogue and try to work through them. I really hope to be able to engage students effectively, where they feel like they have a person who cares about their feelings, while recognizing that there are a lot of different perspectives on any issue. We can’t accommodate every concern in a way that’s satisfying to those individuals.

One thing you’ve already made clear is your support of the Paris Climate Agreement. What is the administration doing to improve sustainability on campus?

We have some amazing products. As an example, we have the nation’s largest composting facility at a university here in Athens. We want to continue to support those efforts and grow those efforts. But it’s also just looking at, overall, the way we use energy. The fact that we have new windows in this building after many, many years. Those are long-term needs that make the building more energy efficient, so they’re more sustainable. We continue to look at ways to use solar energy in creative ways. It’s across the spectrum in our curriculum. We can be an example for a university in our community, as well as in the state.

Fun Facts on Duane Nellis

After a long day of being president of Ohio University, what do you like to do to unwind?
Well, I like being with my wife. She’s my best friend. We often kind of debrief through the day about our different experiences. But also we both enjoy reading, I love reading history. I like swimming and running and things like that.
What’s your favorite movie that you’ve seen in theaters?
The Pianist. It’s not necessarily a new movie, but it’s about this Jewish piano player during the Nazi occupation of Germany and he was able to survive in hiding. Even though it’s an older movie, it was just powerful to see his talent and then the fact that he was able to survive.
If you could trade places with one person for a day, who would you pick?
I really like what I do, I feel very fortunate and blessed to have this type of opportunity. So it’s kind of hard for me to say I’d rather be ‘x’ or ‘y.’ To be a university president at a great university is really special.
Off the top of your head, what are some of your favorite books?
I do enjoy reading a lot about Thomas Jefferson and there have been a variety of books about him, including “The Art of Power.” Just how he worked with people and his leadership style and ideas have been kind of inspirational.

The upcoming Sook Academic Center construction has raised questions about the balance of academic and athletic spending. How do you respond to these concerns?

I think the Sook Center is a tremendous resource for the university. It serves the student athletes, many of them first-generation students who come here and are transformed by the university experience. We want to be supportive of them because we want them to be academically successful. There are very few student athletes who end up with the opportunity to go on and have a professional career in athletics. It doesn’t matter if you’re at a major Power 5 conference school or at Ohio University. So, the degree program is a crucial part and we want to make sure they have the resources and support to be successful. I think that’s a home run as far as opportunities for us. I know it has been controversial, but we raised all of that as private money. These are people who wanted to give in that way and these are also people who give to other academic programs. So, it’s not like they’re taking their money away from the academic part. I think it’s an important part of our overall academic community.

Reports of rape and sexual assault on campus last year spurred a movement opposing campus rape culture. How will the administration work to further protect students and empower survivors?

I think we want to continue to build our programs. Freshmen right now are required to go through training about sexual assault and response. But also from an administrative perspective, this summer and over the next few weeks my whole leadership team is going to be going through training, and we want to extend that across the university community. We just need to keep it at the forefront of doing everything we can to create awareness and prevention as it relates to these incidents. This is not unique, though, to Ohio University. It’s truly a national issue and challenge, but we should try to be leaders in addressing this issue in a constructive way. We do have a very safe environment. We want it to be even safer for all students.

You’ve talked a lot about visibility and wanting to be accessible to students on campus. What is the best way for students to get in contact with you and hear from you?

Well, certainly through my office. I also get, already, emails from students and I try to be responsive and follow up on that. I think certainly there will be opportunities through public forums. I am already planning on having regular meetings with student leadership and going to Student Senate and Graduate Senate. Those are also representatives, they’re elected representatives, and they carry that voice forward to me. And certainly, if students feel like their voice isn’t being heard, hopefully they’ll try to see me or see someone in my leadership team who might help them with whatever concerns they might have. We have a great team that’s really student-centered. We all want to be available in different ways. There are different pathways, but certainly calling my office if it’s something that’s urgent. We want to hear from you.

Disclaimer: Our questions and President Nellis’ answers have been edited for length and clarity.

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