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Ohio University President Duane Nellis speaks on the steps of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepard on University Terrace before the start of the Interfaith Peace Walk on Sept. 11. (FILE)

A Semester in Review: A look at Nellis’ first months in office

In his first 100 days in office, Ohio University President Duane Nellis found himself facing a host of national and local issues, from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program to the new GOP tax plan.

Now a semester into his time in Athens, Nellis has settled into his new job, having hosted forums with faculty and staff in each college, faced criticism for the implementation of free speech policies and defended students’ rights on Capitol Hill. 

Here’s a look at a few of the highlights of Nellis’ first semester in office: 

A visible presence on campus

Nellis aims to be “very visible” on campus, something he has spoken about since August. He takes time, he explained, to get out of the office and interact with students, whether over coffee in The Front Room or through visits with student representatives. 

“I’m an academic at my core,” Nellis said. “I love interacting with students.”

When the Marching 110 travelled to New York City for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, Nellis and his wife, Ruthie, were close behind, standing along the street as the band made its way downtown. And as the Bobcats prepare to take on UAB at the Bahamas Bowl, the presidential couple is cheering on the team in Nassau. 

Budget woes

Between decreasing state support, a slight drop in enrollment and high levels of deferred maintenance on campus, the university’s budget has presented Nellis with one of his most significant hurdles. 

“That’s been one of the big challenges I’ve faced as the new president,” Nellis said. “Our enrollment is down a little bit this year. Not a lot, but it’s enough when we were projecting a little bit of growth. ... That’s $2 or 3 million just like that from tuition, let alone the other revenue for residence halls and how that multiplies through the community.”

As the university builds its budget for the next fiscal year, Nellis hopes to include raises for faculty, staff and graduate students — something that wasn’t present in the most recent budget model. 

“We want to try to build something in for them in this coming year because we want to be able to recognize them and reward them,” Nellis said. “And that’s a challenge, given the budget situation, but it’s really important.” 

Navigating a free speech minefield

The interim “Freedom of Expression” policy caused a notable stir when it was first enacted in August. Banning “demonstrations, rallies, public speech-making, picketing, sit-ins, marches, protests and similar assemblies” in university buildings, the policy also limits conduct that disrupts operations, interferes with student activities or poses safety risks. 

“I think if we have a policy, there are going to be some groups that are upset with that, period,” Nellis said. “But I think we need to have some kinds of guiding principles relative to free speech, but recognizing that in no way do we want to harbor free speech. We want to encourage the opportunities for free speech. We’re a public university, and that’s across the spectrum.”

Planning for the future

In early December, the Office for Diversity and Inclusion released a 124-page report detailing the office’s activities and the state of diversity efforts on OU’s campuses. The data in the report will be used to help “set the stage” for a new vice president for diversity and inclusion.

“The recommendations are really a way to look at where we’re at and where we need to be as far as strengthening our ongoing efforts to really create a robust institutional climate around diversity and inclusion,” Nellis said. “And certainly it’s more than just hiring a vice president for diversity and inclusion.”

During his investiture ceremony, Nellis announced plans to create a university honors program separate from the Honors Tutorial College. The program would cater to the “next tier” of students who are not part of HTC, allocating additional funds to scholarships and financial aid to recruit such students. 


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