By Angela Holmes
CEDAR RAPIDS – During the past 50 years, Norm Nielsen’s career in education has broadened from teaching and coaching in a small school district, to now running a university on an interim basis in his retirement.
When he graduated from Buena Vista University in 1961, he didn’t give much thought about doing anything else but teaching and coaching. But by 1969, he was a high school principal at Northeast Hamilton in Blairsburg, and at age 32 in 1971, he was hired as superintendent of the Belle Plaine School District.
In 1979, he started his tenure at Kirkwood Community College as assistant to the president. He became the community college’s president in 1985, and served in that capacity until he “retired” in 2005.
“I never intended to be an administrator or college president,” he said. “It just happened that way.”
In 2005, he moved to Florida to retire. But soon after, he was asked to serve as interim chancellor of Houston Community College. The seven months in Texas’ largest city were lonely for the widower.
After that, he didn’t plan to take another interim job in another city, but then a familiar school called.
In May, the executive board of Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids asked him about serving as interim president after Christopher Blake did not return as president after his one-year sabbatical. By June, Mr. Nielsen was in place as Mount Mercy’s interim president.
“I knew almost all of the trustees,” Mr. Nielsen said. “There was a need here. I have a lot of loyalty to Cedar Rapids.”
He will serve in that role until a new president is hired. Three finalists of nearly 60 initial applicants were scheduled to interview in Cedar Rapids last week and this week. If all goes well, the university hopes to name a new president before Thanksgiving. At the earliest, a new president could start in January.
Mr. Nielsen is no stranger to Mount Mercy. While he was president at Kirkwood, the two schools formed a partnership. An accelerated adult learning program that began 15 years ago gives nontraditional students the opportunity to achieve a bachelor’s degree through evening classes. Students begin their coursework at Kirkwood, earning their general education and early electives equivalent to the first two years of a bachelor’s degree. Students then transfer those credits to Mount Mercy to complete their four-year degrees. About 1,300 working adults have completed the program in the past 15 years.
Tens of thousands of students in Eastern Iowa have benefitted from Mr. Nielsen’s leadership over the past four decades. In 1979, Kirkwood had an enrollment of 4,650 students. By the time Mr. Nielsen retired in 2005, that had swelled to more than 15,000.
“We set a goal in 1980 that every resident in the seven-county area could receive a two-year degree within 20 miles of home,” he said. “That opened up access and put Kirkwood’s name out there.”
While he is a strong advocate of a vocational education a community college provides, he also believes soft skills developed at a liberal arts institution such as Mount Mercy are important.
“Soft skills are needed to articulate and communicate,” he said. “We can teach them the harder skills.”
With a weakened economy, some private colleges can be a hard sell to prospective students.
“I think there will be private colleges that don’t make it,” Mr. Nielsen said. “That’s not the case at Mount Mercy; we’re very viable. We can give more personal attention. We sell our students on our mission as well as quality.”
With its partnership with Kirkwood, as well as its graduate programs, Mount Mercy has a fairly high rate of non-traditional students. But there is still a strong focus on attracting students straight out of high school.
“We serve a lot of part-time students, but we still want full-time traditional students,” Mr. Nielsen said. “That’s our bread and butter. They live on campus, eat in the dining halls.”
One way Mount Mercy is trying to attract students is through its efforts to build its own athletic complex. In June, the university announced plans to transform vacant industrial space at 909 17th St. NE into a multi-sport, outdoor facility.
“Any private college that wants to survive needs extra-curricular activities,” Mr. Nielsen said. “If we didn’t have athletics, we would be struggling. Extra-curricular activities are part of campus life.”
The facility will be constructed in phases over the course of a few years and is projected to cost $15 million. The Hall-Perrine Foundation has awarded Mount Mercy a $4 million matching grant to help fund the project. In order to receive the full grant amount, the university must secure $8 million in private gifts by Dec. 31, 2015. The goal is to have track, soccer, baseball and softball fields in place by 2017, Mr. Nielsen said.
Another major addition to Mount Mercy is the recent opening of the CRST International Graduate Center in northeast Cedar Rapids.
A $2.1 million gift from John and Dyan Smith on behalf of CRST and a U.S Department of Education grant enabled the college to renovate the former U.S. Army Reserve Center at 1599 Wenig Rd. NE for four graduate programs.
The renovated 34,494-square-foot building includes a 3,324-square-foot auditorium that seats up to 200 people, a marriage and family therapy clinic, computer lab, coffee shop, lobby, common area and faculty conference room. Mount Mercy offers four graduate programs, including master of arts in education, master of business administration, master of arts in marriage and family therapy and master of science in nursing.
“Now we have our own graduate center which gives students identity,” Mr. Nielsen said.
The 74-year-old educator isn’t sure of his plans after his stint at Mount Mercy ends. He may try to resume his retirement which began in 2005.
“I planned to go to Florida and be done,” he said. “But I got bored. I’ve been doing something ever since.”