JFK’s assassination; the civil rights, women’s and free speech movements; Vietnam; the Cold War; and an array of social inequities made the 1960s and ’70s one of the most compelling and challenging eras in not just the history of the United States, but in the history of higher education.
Neag School of Education graduate Steve Nelson, ’96, focuses much of his book “Decades of Chaos and Revolution: Showdowns for College Presidents” on this timeframe, sharing both his perspective and college presidents’ own words to tell a story that both analyzes and argues the impact of college presidents past and present.
“College presidents in the 1960s through about 1975 faced events that shook the foundations of academia, and today’s college presidents are grappling with many of the same parallel issues and, really, much of the same chaos and criticisms that presidents 50 years ago also experienced,” said Nelson, a Rhode Island resident and associate professor of educational leadership at Bridgewater State University. “What I do in this book is throw out a lot of ideas for people to read, chew over and take me on if they wish.”
Published in March by Rowman & Littlefield, this is Nelson’s fourth book about the successes and challenges of U.S. colleges presidents. It’s an interest Nelson said emerged in the mid-1990s while working on his PhD in higher education administration at UConn, under the guidance of now-retired professor William Jellema, PhD, who was Nelson’s advisor.
“I told Dr. Jellema that I was interested in how college presidents use rhetoric to command a public stage, and that turned into both my dissertation and my first book, ‘The Moral Voice of College Presidents,’ ” said Nelson, also a senior scholar in the 32-member academic Leadership Alliance at Brown University. “Some people are natural born researchers, and I discovered that not only did I have researching in my blood, but a real passion for college presidents and becoming a champion, of sorts, for their role as intellectual leaders. Thus, the four books.”
His other earlier titles include “Leaders in the Crossroads: Success and Failure in the College Presidency” and “Leaders in the Labyrinth: College Presidents and the Battleground of Creeds and Convictions.”
In “Decades of Chaos and Revolution,” Nelson compares college presidents of the ’60s and ’70s with those of the early 21st century, questioning which, of the two eras, required more profound leadership.
“It’s not giving anything away to say that I believe the 1960s to the mid-1970s was the most difficult for college presidents in the entire history of higher education in America. That to me is the bottom line, and I really feel this most recent book is my best.”