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Lighting the Path: Thank You and Farewell to Charles Nies

May 27, 2024

It’s spring break 2009 and Jane Lawrence is rushing across campus, the words from the phone call still ringing in her ear. The unimaginable is happening and she must tell Charles Nies,

First Lady Michelle Obama is coming to UC Merced as commencement speaker.

Lawrence, the vice chancellor for student affairs, finds her associate vice chancellor in his office. With the campus quiet and students gone home, Nies had brought his two young daughters to work.

Catching her breath, Lawrence shares the news. The letters, phone calls and Valentine’s Day cards sent by students and families to the White House had worked. Obama will address the first full graduating class of a 4-year-old research university in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley.

“I wish I could better describe the look of astonishment, disbelief and happiness on his face,” Lawrence recalled earlier this month. “Her decision to come not to some famous, big-name campus but to UC Merced set off a whirlwind few months for Charles and me, as well as for the rest of the campus and our community.

“I will never forget that experience and I know Charles won’t, either.”

What Nies remembers about that day in March was the scramble to track down students and others who spearheaded the Obama recruitment. Everyone, including the folks at the White House, believed they should know before the rest of the world found out. “That was a really cool thing,” Nies said.

Listening, Building, Connecting

Even in the first moments of what would be a defining event for a young university, Nies was thinking about the students. As he always does. For 18 years, including eight as the full-time student affairs vice chancellor following Lawrence’s retirement, Nies has been the ultimate people person. He listens and responds, builds and connects, follows up and hob-nobs. His ability to remember names and faces is uncanny — and purposeful.

“There’s an intentionality there,” Nies said in an interview. “I want to make sure staff are aware that I know them and that they know each other. In that way, when staff work with students, they will refer them to as a person and not an office.”

Nies projects an easy approachability to all, from veteran faculty to a first-year student. It helps that Nies’s lean 6-foot-2 frame is easy to spot in a crowd. As you walk toward him and catch his eye, he engages with a gentle “ah, it’s you” smile.

“I've had the pleasure of working with Charles since his start here at UC Merced,” Director of Student Involvement Enrique Guzman said. “In that time, I've come to admire not only his professional skills but his remarkable character. I have witnessed his dedication to our students and staff through his commitment to ensuring we provide a sense of belonging and community.

“His new opportunity is bittersweet for all of us.”

This summer, Nies will take the reins of the University of Minnesota’s Duluth campus. As chancellor, he will be responsible for the success and well-being of more than 1,700 faculty and staff and nearly 10,000 students.

‘Duluth is Incredibly Lucky’

Reactions similar to Guzman’s were felt throughout the UC Merced community last March as Nies’s departure was announced. Internal Communications Coordinator Jennifer Taylor, tasked with emailing the official announcement, followed it up with a personal email to Nies.

“While we never worked together side by side, I learned a lot about the staff member I wanted to be by observing you. I learned a lot about leadership and connecting with staff and students,” Taylor wrote. “Duluth is incredibly lucky to have you at the helm, and I am sure they have no idea how much so yet.”

Nies opened Taylor’s email in his car in the executive parking lot. He had arrived early that morning, hoping to get some extra work done.

The work would have to wait.

"I just sat in my car and cried,” Nies said. “Jen’s message was so steeped in the sense of humanity of this institution and how important that is for her."

Minnesota represents a homecoming of sorts. His mother and two brothers live there. He was born and raised in Hutchinson, a city about 60 miles west of St. Paul. Hutchinson had about 10,000 residents when Nies took a summer job at the town’s 3M plant. He worked in a lab where they tinkered with a prototype machine that churned out multiple squares of paper connected with reusable adhesive.

Many years later, Nies was facilitating a leadership session in which participants wrote life goals on those familiar squares. He remembers pausing to look at the Post-It notes in his hand. He smiled. “My life has come full circle,” he thought.

Nies’s younger daughter is graduating from high school and heading to college, so he and wife Emily Langdon, a UC Merced instructor of management and business economics, will be empty nesters.

“My daughters have talked about getting to know my side of the family better,” said Nies, noting that Langdon’s extended family is mostly in California.

A Story That’s Easy to Tell

Until that move, Nies will continue to be one of UC Merced’s most visible deliverers of goodwill, always ready with a kind word or, if the cameras are rolling, a well-packaged sound bite. “People say, ‘Oh, my gosh, you’re so good at public speaking. What's your secret?’ Well, one secret is to tell the story you're passionate to tell,” he said. “That makes it easy.

“We're doing cool things at UC Merced. Really cool things that are connected to my passions, my values, what I'm committed to. So it’s easy for me to go out and talk about it.”

Meanwhile, people in the university community and beyond were eager to talk about Nies’ legacy at UC Merced.