People of Higher Ed: MassArt President David Nelson opens up about his love for music and experience as a first-generation student
Massachusetts College of Art and Design President David Nelson has spent 15 years in higher education administration, but at first glance you might miss that he also has postgraduate training as a classical music conductor, along with a Ph.D. in theology from the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Nelson spoke with Education Dive about how his educational background informs his perspective, and how being a first-generation college student prepared him to ask the right questions to assist first-gen students attending MassArt. Questions and answers have been lightly edited.
Your educational history includes graduate training as a classical music conductor, as well as postgraduate education in theology. How does your background affect your approach to college administration?
I feel like I use my training as a conductor every day. Good conductors listen a lot and know how to draw things out of people, and know how to help people work together. I’d say that is an enormous part of a college administrator’s work, so the conducting pieces come into play all the time.
I think likewise, with the graduation degree in theology — I did all that work in theology and philosophy, and you’re just busy in that field asking questions all the time, and in a very real sense, just thinking about what it means to be human. I think those ways of thinking, both in my training as an artist and a theologian make me very inquisitive, and I’m always asking questions and challenging assumptions, trying to figure things out. That serves me well when you’re leading an organization, but I don’t want to underemphasize the point that in the discipline of theology, like in the arts as a conductor, we’re dealing with people and how people live and work together. I’d like to think my training in theology helps me to be humane as well as being the kind of person that asks questions, both big and small.
I think people from different fields could say the same thing, but I have a couple of different vantage points. I didn’t have an education that took me just down one path; I was twisting and turning all the way. If someone said ‘I want to be a college president, should I get degrees in music and theology,’ I doubt anyone would say that, but here I am. Of course, I never set out to be a college administrator, that wasn’t a goal. That was a favor to someone — I hadn’t expected to do it, but here I am, years later doing it. And I like the work a lot.
How does your background as a first-generation college student impact your perspective, particularly on the challenges first-generation students are facing?
I think that affects the work I do everyday. I went to college because a teacher did more than encourage me; he made sure I went to college. His generosity and the time he put into me changed my life. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today if he hadn’t taken that step with me. Beyond that, I do know what it is to go into a university really on my own as someone who really didn’t understand what I was doing. While my parents were wonderfully supportive, the idea of going to college wasn’t so important.
So I was quite on my own in that process, and I think when we bring new students in every year, I’m imagining very easily what some of them are thinking and what they’re about to go through, and I’m quite empathetic. But it also allows me to ask a set of questions about how we’re taking care of our students that comes very naturally to me. I’m wondering if they’re being cared for the way people took care of me.
Are there books or pieces of music that offer inspiration?
I’d first say I draw a lot of inspiration from the mission of the school, and that’s not just the part about preparing students, but the piece of the mission that says we’re preparing students to engage in the well-being of their society. It’s why in my inaugural address I talked about the idea of a ‘good’ economy rather than a ‘goods’ economy, where a good economy is one in which the well-being of society is never reduced to mere dollars and cents. At a public institution like this, I take that mission very seriously; students come here to be prepared, and they go on to do something with their life. Like every parent, we want every student to go on to make a good living, but we also want them to live a good life. And that matters for the well-being of a society, and public education is really all about that — it’s why this school was founded, and it’s why we preserve that mission and enact it.
It’s probably the case that on any given day, riding in on the ‘T’, with all of this noise and distraction, I’m pretty likely to put in headphones and listen to Bach cello suites or the solo violin work, or equally as inspiring to me, the work of Miles Davis or Dave Brubeck. I will admit that I’m pretty constantly drawing on my background in music as a way ... maybe in a sense, getting me through, but also in a real sense continuing to be inspired by really great artists while I continue to live in a community of really great artists — our faculty, students and staff.