The first of four presidential forums for Ohio University’s next president was held Tuesday in Baker Ballroom, where more than 200 students, faculty and community members gathered to hear from Duane Nellis.
A former president of Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Nellis began his career as a geography professor, but has spent nearly 27 years in an administrative capacity within higher education. He now serves as University Honors Professor at Texas Tech.
The forum began with a preselected question from the university focusing on why Nellis chose to apply to OU and what his qualifications for the position are.
Nellis cited “the distinguished nature of Ohio University” as part of what drew him to the institution.
“It is truly one of the premier institutions not only in the state of Ohio, but in the nation,” he said.
If selected, a move to Athens would mean a return to Appalachia for Nellis and his wife, Carolyn Ruth, as the couple previously lived in West Virginia while he served as a dean at West Virginia University from 1997 to 2004. Nellis also said the university would bring them in close proximity to their two children, Jonathan and Jason, who both reside in the Pittsburgh area.
The audience, composed largely of administrators and faculty members, asked a variety of questions throughout the 90-minute event, the majority of which focused on the issues of diversity and transparency.
“One of the things that will define the success of a major, distinguished public university is a commitment to diversity and inclusion and how well you do that,” Nellis said, adding that he has dealt with similar issues at Texas Tech, where the student body has a rapidly growing Hispanic student population.
Throughout the event, Nellis also emphasized his desire to listen to opinions and concerns from all members of the university community, especially in respect to student activism and concerns from faculty members.
“I believe strongly in what a university represents in being respectful of the spectrum of opinions and positions, and I want to create an inclusive environment,” he said.
Hashim Pashtun, president of International Student Union and a graduate student studying civil engineering at OU, found Nellis’ focus on diversity to be promising.
“Diversity and inclusion is a complex topic, and it cannot be answered easily. … I think (Nellis) knows the concerns, that it’s not only administrators, it’s not only students, it’s a combined process,” he said.
Steve Hays, an associate professor of classics and world religions, voiced his concern about the university's spending on intercollegiate athletics and asked Nellis whether he thought spending millions of dollars on the programs is justified.
“Athletics is in many ways the front porch of how many Americans see the university,” Nellis said. “It may not be fair, but in many ways, it is the reality. … Overall, I feel like athletics is an important part of the institution, but it needs to be balanced with the academic side.”
Nellis added while OU may not generate as much revenue as “that school up north,” athletics programs often provide experience in other areas of the university, such as sport management.
Some people, including City Council President Chris Knisely, were happy to see how receptive Nellis seemed to be toward university-community relations.
“We’d probably see him more in the community, more than we’ve seen President McDavis,” Tim Traxler, an Athens County resident, said after the forum. “He just seemed to be someone who’s interested in the community and engaging with solving problems in the community as well as the university.”
Nellis declined to speak to the media following the event.
Three additional forums will be held in Baker Ballroom for the remaining candidates on Jan. 12, 13 and 17.
Correction: A previous version of the photo caption misstated the date of Nellis' forum. The caption has been updated to reflect the most accurate information.