The Nielson Legacy | Reflecting & Looking Ahead
by Brian Beise
In 2002, Dr. Niel Nielson chose 1 Peter 1:5-7 as the theme of his inauguration as Covenant College’s fifth president. These verses speak to the steady process by which he moved the College forward in his ten years of service: “Add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love.”
The title of his inaugural address, “The Only Way Forward,” pointed to the commitment which he would demonstrate to move the College forward only while holding fast to the faith of our fathers.
On June 30, 2012, Dr. Niel Nielson steps down as Covenant College’s fifth president. After ten years of service, he leaves the school with expanded academic programs, strong enrollment, a greatly improved campus, financial stability, and a continuing tradition of moving forward while remaining firmly rooted in Scripture and the Reformed tradition.
As we move into a season of new leadership, we remember a blessed decade in which Dr. Nielson demonstrated that for Covenant the only way forward is keeping rooted.
Born and raised in a pastor’s home, Dr. Nielson met his wife, Kathleen Buswell, while both were attending Wheaton College. They were married, and each went on to earn an M.A. and Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University: hers in literature, his in philosophy. Today they have three sons, two daughters-in-law, and one granddaughter.
His Ph.D. in hand, Dr. Nielson taught philosophy at Bethel College before transitioning to the business world of Chicago, where he worked in the financial markets, human resources, venture capital, and mergers and acquisitions. In 1997, he became the associate pastor of outreach at College Church in Wheaton, Illinois, where he was ordained to the gospel ministry. He still is an ordained ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).
All along the path to Covenant’s presidency, Dr. Nielson gathered experience—in education, business, finance, pastoral ministry—that would serve him as he served the College. He also brought with him a passion for international ministry and education and a vision for keeping the College anchored to the Reformed faith while striving to reach new levels of excellence.
In his inaugural address, titled “The Only Way Forward,” Dr. Nielson expressed his belief that Covenant must move forward while “keeping the faith which has been handed down to us.” The speech was based on 1 Peter 1:2-21 and expressed the philosophy that has defined his presidency. Just as a tree must dig deeper roots to grow higher, so Covenant would deepen its connections with the PCA as it strove to grow and expand.
“He said he would advance Covenant by keeping it exactly where it is,” says Dr. Cliff Foreman, professor of English, “meaning we would continue to be a liberal arts college with the same vision and the same ethos we’ve always had. I think he succeeded in doing that.”
In the ten years that Dr. Nielson has been in office, Covenant significantly expanded its academic offerings. New majors were created in art, economics, French, German studies, international studies, Spanish, and theatre. The degree-completion program in early childhood education was added, as was the master of arts in teaching program. Concentrations were developed in design, marketing and political studies. Dr. Nielson’s international experience has been integral to the goal of each Covenant student graduating with true intercultural competence, ready to answer God’s calling in the States or abroad.
“Niel was very good at taking our ideas, boiling them down and expressing them in a way that was beautiful, sensible, and most importantly faithful to the tradition of the College,” says Dr. Foreman. “He has done a good job of keeping our academic programs on target with those traditional emphases of Covenant College.”
Dr. Nielson led the way in initiating the BUILD campaign, through which Covenant’s campus has seen significant improvements. Brock Hall and Andreas Hall were built, Kresge Memorial Library was renovated, and Carter Hall continues to benefit from ongoing renovation projects. The Dottie Brock Gardens and a new front circle provide a beautiful, welcoming entrance to the campus. A new baseball and softball complex, lights over Scotland Yard soccer field, and expanded cross-country trails are new resources for our students and community.
“There’s been a significant building effort,” says David Northcutt, director of facilities management and planning, “an increase in planning and mapping out the future, all under Dr. Nielson’s leadership. He has an ability to see what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and what that means for later. I get bogged down in the details of daily problems, but whenever I’m around him, there’s a sense of why we’re doing it all.”
Dr. Nielson—with Chaplain Aaron Messner—brought a greater emphasis on the preaching and teaching of Scripture in chapel, with that primary focus being supplemented by topical speakers from within the Covenant community and around the globe. Careful to point out that chapel is in no way a substitute for the church, both Nielson and Messner, as well as guest preachers, have continued to communicate to the student body the importance of being an active member of a local church body.
Under Dr. Nielson’s leadership, the faculty passed a philosophy of education statement, centering on the College’s mission to explore and express Christ’s preeminence in all things. The document outlines the College’s devotion to the inerrant Scriptures and makes it clear that, “as a collective body of rescued sinners, Covenant College is dedicated to inspiring and to equipping students to become faithful stewards of their academic gifts.”
Dr. Nielson also oversaw the creation of Covenant’s statement of community beliefs, which all faculty members, senior administrators, and trustees are required to sign. The drafting and passage of these defining documents were by no means simple tasks, and it was the role of the president to see that they represented the true character and goals of the College.
“The faculty hiring process was refined, and Dr. Nielson successfully clarified the way the president, board of trustees, and faculty relate to one another,” says Dr. Jeff Hall, vice president for academic affairs. “His guidance through shared governance was essential to the College’s ongoing cohesion and integrity.”
Other highlights of Dr. Nielson’s tenure include the creation of the Center for Calling & Career, the Seed Project entrepreneurship initiative, the Nick Barker Writer in Residence program, the Debate Society, Summer Pre-Orientation, the annual student Leadership Summit, increased faculty scholarship, and College-sponsored seminars at the PCA General Assembly.
Four Covenant alumni were awarded Fulbright grants during his presidency, and Covenant has consistently ranked among the top ten colleges in the South according to U.S. News & World Report.
“The theme of President Nielson’s inaugural address carried throughout his tenure,” says Dr. Hall. “He encouraged us in one sense to ‘go nowhere,’ remaining faithful to our missional foundations. At the same time, the College should consistently look for ways to improve and expand our service. Dr. Nielson’s presidency can be characterized as grounding us deeply in our founding faith and encouraging growth of campus, programs, and student body to serve more broadly and more effectively.”
With Dr. Nielson moving on and Dr. Derek Halvorson ’93 preparing to begin his tenure as the College’s sixth president, the Covenant community remembers God’s blessings over the past ten years, finds renewed determination to remain faithful to who we are, and continues striving to explore and express the preeminence of Jesus Christ in all things.
As it was written in 1 Peter 1:5-7, the theme of Dr. Nielson’s inauguration: “Add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love.”
Q&A With Dr. Nielson
Favorite time of year at Covenant
Move-In Day, with wide-eyed freshmen and our wonderful Orientation team.
Favorite time of day at Covenant
Early morning with sunrise on the Overlook, birds singing, and campus waking up.
Best prank during your tenure
The one with a trampoline on the chapel lawn, with students dressed like trustees, and then trustees like Joel Belz ’62 joining them in jumping.
Favorite campus event
Convocation. It’s always exciting to begin a new year with students’ enthusiasm and appreciation for faculty.
Best surprise during your tenure
Watching our son, Dan ’08, fall in love with his future wife, who was also a Covenant student.
Greatest lesson you learned during your tenure
51% decisions are difficult but right.
What excites you most about covenant’s future
The opportunity to pursue an increasingly distinctive mission.
Your deepest prayer for Covenant
That Covenant would stay true to its mission.
Favorite place on campus
Chapel, with students gathered to hear the reading and preaching of God’s word.
Favorite meal in the great hall
Favorite thing about the president’s office
Windows looking out on campus life.
What you’ll miss most about being president
Connecting with many different constituencies who love and support the College: parents, church leaders, alumni, and donors.
Dr. Nielson’s Presidential Portrait
Dr. Nielson’s portrait was painted by Jim Pollard, a nationally renowned artist who believes that a successful portrait “is a likeness of studied casualness.” Depicting Dr. Nielson before the stained glass of Covenant’s chapel not only illustrates Dr. Nielson’s connection to the College and the church, it also allowed for a subtle familial reference. J. Oliver Buswell, Jr., Kathleen Nielson’s grandfather, who served as dean of Covenant Seminary, can just be seen depicted in the stained glass beside Dr. Nielson’s left hand and wedding ring. The painting was presented to the College in April, and now hangs alongside the other four presidential portraits in the Presidents Room.