The Minnesota State College Faculty union knows it can rely on Rick Nelson.
Nelson has spent a dozen years as legislative liaison for the union that represents instructors at Minnesota’s public, two-year community and technical colleges. He also has directed the sports management program and taught physical education at Century College in White Bear Lake since 2001.
True to his profession, Nelson said he spends more time educating legislators than testifying before them. His mission: to make Minnesota’s two-year public colleges and what they do for students more visible at the Capitol.
That’s a challenge, with faculty from the University of Minnesota and other four-year institutions frequently grabbing headlines.
“We have to work everywhere, especially at the Legislature, to let folks know we’ve got a lot of good stuff going on here. We’re changing lives on a daily basis,” says Minnesota State College Faculty (MSCF) president Kevin Lindstrom. “The luxury we have with Rick is that because of his history at the Capitol, we can rely on him to carry out our goals without us having to be active every single day.”
MSCF represents 5,000 instructors and is a subsidiary of Education Minnesota, the public school teachers’ union. Nelson co-chaired the Minnesota Community College Faculty Association until it merged in 2001 with the United Technical College Educators to form MSCF.
Sometimes, MSCF works at the Capitol in tandem with the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system, which employs the union’s members. It’s not always an easy relationship, but working together has its benefits, according to Jerry Janezich, government relations director for MnSCU and a former state senator.
In the last legislative session, Nelson and Janezich collaborated on getting faculty and staff contracts ratified and approved by legislators. Janezich said his friendship with Nelson helps them present a united front at the Legislature when necessary.
“When you go there, people like to see you on the same page,” Janezich says. “They don’t like to see a fight.”
A head for politics
Janezich said he believes Nelson does this work simply because he likes it. Nelson is inclined to agree, and he has had an affinity for politics from childhood.
He grew up in Oklee, Minn., the adopted hometown of Coya Knutson, the first Minnesota woman to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. His high school football coach, John Corbid, served as a DFL legislator from 1975 to 1980.
Although politics was intriguing, sports were Nelson’s first love.
“My lifelong dream from about fourth grade on was that I was going to coach football and basketball,” Nelson says. “I was going to coach and get into the big time.”
From 1979 to 1984, Nelson taught physical education, social studies and driver education, and became athletic director, head football coach and head basketball coach at Goodridge Public Schools in Goodridge, Minn. He bypassed an opportunity to teach at a four-year college to connect with students at a smaller school and to nurture his political leanings.
He then served as athletic director at Northland Community and Technical College in nearby Thief River Falls from 1984 to 2001. At Century College, he has devoted himself to sports and politics, serving as faculty adviser to the student senate.
Nelson talks to legislators about maintaining academic freedom, rigor and integrity. He also reminds them that his organization represents a wide breadth of educators, from English teachers to welding instructors.
He emphasizes that many community and technical college students represent the first generation in their families to attend college. Because not everyone can afford a private, four-year college education, a two-year degree can be someone’s ticket to higher education, he says.
Nelson reminds legislators that faculty members at two-year colleges often have strong ties to business and industry, ascertaining their needs and tailoring students’ education to fit them.
He also works to get legislators to back appropriations for two-year college education, including funds for the latest equipment that students in such areas as health care and auto mechanics need.
“If you get [training on a three-year-old] diagnostics machine, do you think Ford is going to hire you?” he says. “You don’t want someone who learns online to be taking your blood or your blood pressure.”
Buildings need work
MSCF wants more money for the Higher Education Asset Preservation and Replacement fund, particularly because many of the buildings at Minnesota’s two-year public colleges are about 50 years old.
Nelson knows whereof he speaks. Last year, he taught in a classroom where the air conditioning didn’t work and the wasps that made a nest outside got in through the open windows.
“I didn’t testify to the Legislature,” Nelson says. “I told that story in about a dozen offices.”
In the higher education bill passed last year, legislators earmarked $17 million in one-time money for MnSCU faculty retention and recruitment. MSCF wants that to become an ongoing contribution.
“We can recruit more faculty and retain good faculty — and also have good teaching space for learning for students and us,” Nelson says.
He likens sports to politics in that they’re both all about people.
“In politics, if you aggravate the people and you grandstand them and show them up, they’re not going to vote for your project,” he says. “But you can’t be afraid to point out if you’re not on the same page with people. You’ve got to stand up to the challenge and for your beliefs.”
Nelson also believes that government exists to solve problems: “You just kind of keep working it.”
The Nelson File
Name: Rick Nelson
Job: Legislative liaison for Minnesota State College Faculty; faculty member, Century College
Grew up: Oklee, Minn.
Lives in: White Bear Lake
Education: Specialist certification as school superintendent and principal, Tri-College University, Fargo, N.D.; M.A., physical education, health and sports administration, Bemidji State University, Bemidji, Minn.; B.S., physical education and health, Bemidji State University; A.A. in general education, Northland Community College, Thief River Falls
Family: Wife, Kaari; stepchildren, Annie and Sam
Hobbies: Weight-lifting, running, bicycling, watching college football, reading and traveling