Everything Matters

Steve Neilson’s 40-year tenure at Rollins has been driven by one simple credo: Students are the center of the college universe.

When Steve Neilson retires this month as interim vice president of student affairs, he will do so at the top of his field, one of the most highly respected experts in the integration of students’ academic programs with their extracurricular lives.

“He’s absolutely a national leader in student affairs,” says Karen Hater, dean of students. “He has participated in so much that has made the profession what it is today.”

Neilson has received highest recognition from his colleagues, including the 2011 Pillar of the Profession Award from NASPA’s Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education and the Associated Colleges of the South’s Leonard Goldberg Citation for his exemplary leadership in student affairs.

But 25 years ago, it was a bit of a risk to put a theater professor at the helm of student affairs. Dan DeNicola, dean of the faculty and then provost under President Emeritus Thaddeus Seymour, was the administrator responsible for appointing Neilson. Change, he says, was in the air. Warp-speed advances in technology hinted at a future devoid of real campus life, when an education theoretically could be acquired alone on a computer screen. He needed someone who could help Rollins develop a whole-student approach to learning, with out-of-classroom campus experiences as enriching as the College’s academic programs.

DeNicola thought Neilson might be the one.

Coming straight from the theater classroom, Neilson knew the academic side, had currency with the faculty. As manager of the Annie Russell Theatre, he had administrative skills, experience with budgets. But his most promising quality, says DeNicola, who is now at Gettysburg College, was that Neilson genuinely likes students.

“It was one of the best appointments I ever made,” DeNicola says. “Top of the list.”

The heart of Neilson’s success has been his grasp of the big picture. In 1988, there was nothing intentional about life outside the classroom—academics were set apart from everything else. The business of college administrations was confined to the 20 hours a week students spent with professors. Students had to figure out the rest of their hours on their own, with mixed results. 

“But Steve Neilson had a vision and that vision has become the norm for colleges across the country,” Hater says. “He understood that students learn a lot—a whole lot—outside the classroom, and we’ve become very intentional about that now, with services and programs that enhance learning outcomes.” 

Neilson matched his big-picture perspective with big initiatives. He spearheaded a major campus center renovation that would create a campus “living room.” He developed the Wellness Center and its programs. He authored the Honor Code and received significant grants for alcohol education and abuse prevention. Under Neilson, multicultural programs expanded, international programs flourished, opportunities for involvement and expression and service multiplied. And all of it has added to the education of the student body. 

President Emerita Rita Bornstein says Neilson has always championed the student, from upgrading dorm rooms to making the library more user-friendly to bolstering student government. His brilliance has been in understanding that students need a total experience. 

“He taught me a lot,” she says. “He taught me how to help students put together a life outside of classes. He taught me how important it was to always look at the whole individual, their physical well-being, their intellectual well-being, their spiritual well-being. He wanted to make every day of the college experience a good one.” 

Neilson has a simple phrase to explain this big-picture approach.

“Everything matters,” he says. “You can’t deal with only certain aspects of students’ lives. Everything matters.”

This is, of course, the soul of Neilson’s success.

“In our office, we see students in trouble. That’s part of the job,” he says. “It’s almost relentless. But our goal is to help them be safe, to protect them when they fall, but also to challenge them to change. And by the way, most of our students are very successful, even the ones who have a lot of difficulties early on.”

Neilson recalls one student in particular who found herself in front of a judge. Neilson went to bat for her, helped her stay in school. Years later, she still writes him. She has a happy, community-conscious, successful life. “I’m not surprised. She had that spark, that fire, even in her difficulties. If you help one person like her, you’re helping everyone.”

Hater calls this Neilson’s gift: “People are important to him. Beyond what he’s done for the College and the profession on a larger scale, he made a difference one person at a time.”

DeNicola says such skills are unusual in student affairs. Often a dean will be a strong advisor or counselor, but not much of an administrator, or vice versa.

“But he’s great with the individual and at the same time can think globally. It was just second nature for him, I think.”

Perhaps, but it also involved some on-the-job training. With no formal education in student affairs (in comparison, most of his 40 department members have advanced degrees in student personnel or a related field), he set about educating himself.

“He was a quick study,” Hater says. “He read everything, talked to everybody, and joined national organizations—all independent study. It began as a way for him to learn, but quickly he began contributing on a national level.”

As Bornstein says, “He was a student of student affairs.”

Born in Wilmington, Neilson  received his bachelor’s degree in theater from the University of Delaware in 1969. Military service followed: tours of duty in Germany and Vietnam, then graduate school at the University of Miami. A friend mentioned an opening at Rollins.

“I had this great career—40 years,” he says, “first in academics, then in student affairs. I worked for six years as a special assistant to the president [Lewis Duncan], which allowed me to continue my work with student affairs on a national level. And then as I approached 65, the president gave me an opportunity to return as interim vice president of student affairs. I was able to finish a career doing the thing I love best.”

The timing is perfect, Neilson says; he’s still young enough to enjoy his family (his twin sons are 29), his wine collection, and his consulting work. On day one of official retirement, he’ll be off to see Europe. First stop: Prague.

When Neilson grabs his passport and clears his desk for good, it’s not hard to imagine a void. His colleagues call him gracious and unfailingly optimistic.

“What you see is what you get with Steve,” says Hater, who has worked with Neilson for 17 years. “He is authentic and expressive. He just fills a room.”

Neilson says, although he’s (mostly) ready for the next stage of his life, he’ll look back on his time at the College as a kind of paradise.

“I looked forward to coming to work every day because students are at the center of my job,” he says. “I can honestly say I have never had one bad day at Rollins.”