Nelson Leaves Her Legacy at Harvard

When outgoing Dean of Student Life Suzy M. Nelson came to Harvard in 2005, she brought with her almost two decades of administrative experience overseeing student life and Greek organizations.

Immediately before taking her post at Harvard, Nelson had spent the past seven years at Cornell University, where she managed 3,500 students in 67 Greek organizations as associate dean of students for fraternity and sorority affairs.

At Cornell, Nelson—who had been a member of Kappa Alpha Theta in college herself—launched the “Creating Chapters of Excellence” initiative, which increased administrative oversight over Greek organizations through mentorship, programming, and financial resources.

Nelson brought her administrative hand to Harvard, where she increased dialogue with student organizations as head of the Office of Student Life after its creation in 2009.

Now, after six-and-a-half years at Harvard, Nelson will be moving on once again in June to become vice president and dean of the college at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y.


Nelson’s departure comes at a pivotal moment in the evolution of the OSL, which is closely involved in the first stage of the House Renewal project, the launch of the Office of BGLTQ Student Life, and the crafting of a new alcohol policy expected to be drafted by the end of this semester.

In the midst of these developments which will come to fruition without the guidance of the dean who helped launch them, reviews of Nelson’s tenure at Harvard are mixed. While administrators and student leaders universally praised Nelson for striving to involve students in the OSL’s decision-making process, some said they thought Nelson was perceived by undergraduates as overbearingly involved in student organization governance—or conversely, not known to many students at all.


When Nelson came to Harvard in 2005, she wrote in an email to The Crimson that she would seek to “actively engage students in shaping their campus experience and to provide them with support and guidance” in her new position as dean of residential life.

Administrators and student leaders said they thought Nelson succeeded in these goal as dean of residential life and, later, as Harvard’s first dean of student life.

Former Undergraduate Council President Senan Ebrahim ’12 lauded Nelson for fostering “a much more accessible, student-friendly approach, with more incorporation of the student perspective” through initiatives like meetings to solicit student feedback on alcohol policy. He also praised her involvement in the Task Force on Student Voice, which brought together a group of students, staff, and faculty to examine students’ input in Harvard policy.

Assistant Dean of the College for Student Life Emelyn A. dela Peña wrote in an email that she thought Nelson “helped enhance an environment that really supported student development and engagement.”

But Ebrahim admitted that Nelson’s efforts to listen to students’ voices may have sometimes gone unnoticed by the student body.

“I’m not sure to what extent students around the College know all she’s done for us,” Ebrahim said.