The Freshman


The Nellis Interview: OU’s president reflects on journey to office

Lauren Fisher / Asst. News Editor

If Roderick McDavis left Ohio University like a time-weathered senior, then Duane Nellis has leapt onto the scene as the enthusiastic freshman, eager to impress.


“I believe strongly in higher education. I have a commitment to lifelong learning, so these experiences every day I feel like I’m learning more about not only the campus, but the community. So it’s energizing to me.”Duane Nellis, 21st president of OU

Don’t mistake his zealousness as naiveté, though. He is a veteran of university presidencies and a self-professed lifelong learner with the credentials to show it.


On a sunny July afternoon, College Green hummed with a lazy lull of summer activity. Inside Cutler Hall, however, the atmosphere was electric. OU first lady Ruthie Nellis strolled in and out of the office, and offered a warm “hello” to those in the lobby. Outside, construction crews chipped away at the brick pathway, setting the stage for the year to come.


The bookshelves lining the president’s office, just months ago left bare as McDavis neared his final days in office, were once again filled to the brim. On one ledge sat a framed photo of Nellis with Gloria Steinem, the two beaming over dinner at the University of Idaho. On another was a copy of They Can't Kill Us All: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America's Racial Justice Movement the best-selling book by Wesley Lowery, the former editor-in-chief of The Post who attended OU from 2008-2012.


The room itself gleamed, and in its center, OU President Duane Nellis, 63, settled into his seat at the table, a much-needed cup of coffee close at hand. His schedule of events had been nonstop — that afternoon, he was off to Columbus.


It’s enough to make anyone’s head spin. But to Nellis, it’s all part of the fun.


“I have a lot of passion and energy,” he said. “I believe strongly in higher education. I have a commitment to lifelong learning, so these experiences every day I feel like I’m learning more about not only the campus, but the community. So it’s energizing to me.”


The move to OU is another fresh start — a new office, a brand new house and an abundance of new names to put to faces.


“I’m just glad to be at a great place like Ohio University,” Nellis said. “This is terrific. And this is where I really want to be for the capstone of my career.”

The Road to Office

In January, Nellis’ name first made headlines in Athens when the four finalists were announced in the university’s search for a successor to now-former OU President McDavis. McDavis, who announced in March 2016 that he would be stepping down, accepted a position with a higher education search firm in December.


Meagan Hall | FILE

Duane Nellis during an interview on July 19, 2017.


The former president of Texas Tech University and the University of Idaho, Nellis fielded an array of questions during his public forum, receiving positive feedback for his comments citing diversity and inclusion as indicators that “define the success” of a major public university.


But then, the unexpected happened. North Dakota State President Dean Bresciani withdrew his name from the search. Pam Benoit, who was then OU's executive vice president and provost, followed suit the next day, followed by former University of New Mexico President Robert Frank. Within the span of three days, Nellis found himself the sole candidate in the running, poised to inherit a university in the midst of political unrest.


Days before the other candidates withdrew, 70 students were arrested during a Baker Center demonstration in which they asked McDavis to declare OU a sanctuary campus. The demonstration came just before McDavis’ final days, prompting university officials to cancel a planned farewell event and paving the way for his quiet exit.


Less than a month passed before Nellis was officially named president of OU — a torch passed his way by then-interim OU President David Descutner, whom Nellis met during his first visit to campus.


“When I met him at the open forum when he was one of the four candidates who came to campus, I liked him and his wife Ruthie immediately,” Descutner said of Nellis. “I liked him because I think he’s exactly what Ohio University needs right now.”

Small Town Roots

Nellis is no stranger to the rhythm and pace of small-town life. Although born in Spokane, Washington, his roots lie in a town with a population of 3,000.


After graduating in a high school class of 180, he packed his bags and headed for Montana State University, where, as he describes it, it was as if “a lightbulb went off.” A natural when it came to math and science, Nellis began his college career as an engineering major, only to later shift his focus to geography. The field would later bring him global opportunities, from research in the Kalahari Desert to contributions to a book published in Japanese.


“I liked him because I think he’s exactly what Ohio University needs right now.”David Descutner, interim OU President

“Geography is a discipline that allows you the spectrum,” Nellis explained. “There’s cultural geography, all the way through physical geography, and in between ... you have an opportunity to really learn about the world. And that excitement was really important to me.”


It was also during his time at Montana State University that he met fellow geography major Carolyn Ruth, affectionately known as Ruthie. By the time senior year rolled around, the two were already happily married, and Nellis was looking for his next step.


His dream — and he’ll admit he didn’t know it was possible at the time — was to stay at school in some capacity. He went on to graduate work at Oregon State University, realizing early on that, “in a perfect world,” he wanted not only to teach, but also to lead. By the time he was 25, he had secured his doctoral degree. By 32, he was a department head.


“Then (I was) a dean, and then a provost, and then a university president,” Nellis said. “But I never imagined at that time that that would be part of it. Because I just loved, and I still love, the dimensions of what it means to be a faculty member, and being at a university.”


And at the heart of it all, Nellis still sees himself as just that — a member of the faculty, enchanted by the everyday occurrences of university life.

Finding Home in Athens

Sometimes, Nellis has learned, the key to being an effective leader is found beyond the hours spent in the office. His Twitter account is a hodgepodge of memories made on campus: greeting students on the first day of classes, sharing meals in the dining halls and chatting with players during football practice.


“I knew firsthand that I had to understand and discover ... what it means to be a member of the Bobcat family,” he told first-year students during convocation. “I had to learn my way around campus. Find the best route from work to Bentley. Figure out which dining halls were the best.”


It wasn’t long after settling in that he was helping first-year students lug boxes into dorm rooms. As he stood onstage at convocation, presidential robes and all, Nellis looked to the crowd of freshmen and offered them a few words of appreciation, and perhaps, sympathy.


“You’re very special to me,” he told them. “You’re my inaugural class. I look forward to sharing this journey with you.”


For now, Nellis said his plan is to listen. Like any freshman, he has a lot to learn. Athens is still a maze of brick roads and one way streets. The quirks of this town, and of this school, take time to sink in. His five-minute drive to the office will soon become clockwork. He’ll learn the fight song by heart and find his go-to order at Casa Nueva, and the newness of the presidency will fade.


His journey to Athens has been a decades-long odyssey across the country, but will this college town ever truly feel like home?


“Oh, very much,” he said. He paused, then smiled. “Actually, it feels a lot that way right now.”

Development by: Taylor Johnston / Digital Production Editor

Landing Page

Special Projects

This story is part of a series of specially designed stories that represents some of the best journalism The Post has to offer. Check out the rest of the special projects here.