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Lighting the Path: Thank You and Farewell to Charles Nies

May 27, 2024
UC Merced VC of Student Affairs Charles Nies with students
"It's people who create the heart and soul of UC Merced," said Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Charles Nies (center).

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.

Charles Nies UC Merced commencement speech
Nies spoke of the light in all of us during a keynote speech for spring 2024 commencement.

Jackie Shay was an internal vice president of UC Merced’s student government from 2007 to 2009. “Thank you for those times by my side as I navigated leading the ASUCM Senate. Your advice lifted me from imposter to leader,” wrote Shay, now associate director of the university’s Center for Engaged Teaching and Learning. This year, she will join UC Santa Barbara as a biology professor. “Thank you for always having a smile. Your energy fueled the success of thousands. Congratulations on your next adventure!”

Chancellor Juan Sánchez Muñoz described Nies as “a trusted advisor and repository of institutional knowledge. Almost every undergraduate who has come to this campus has felt the benefit of his leadership, wisdom and compassionate guidance.”

In 2016, Ed Klotzbier was in the final stages of interviewing for a job at UC Merced. It would be a big move, taking him across the U.S. from New England. Nies hosted him for a campus lunch while Langdon hosted his wife downtown.

“They did a terrific job explaining to us in their own way why this opportunity was so special from both the campus and the community perspective,” said Klotzbier, now the university’s vice chancellor of external relations. “Emily and Charles could not have been more welcoming when we moved to Merced, and Stella and I are grateful for all they have done for us, for our campus and for the Merced community.”

An Example of Commitment and Care

Portia Mira spent five years in foster care in the early 2000s. When she turned 18, she brought her younger sister out of a foster home to raise by herself. As a student, Mira transferred from Merced College to UC Merced and, with support and guidance from Nies, helped establish the Guardian Scholars program for Bobcats who come from foster care.

Mira is now a biology fellow in the Mayo Clinic’s Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology.

“Working with Charles on the Guardian Scholars advisory panel impacted my career journey and was a starting block for my involvement in numerous DEI and foster care-focused committees,” Mira said. “He is sincere in his commitment to the community and students and will always be someone I look up to.”

Time and again, Nies and Student Affairs turned to Image Masters for Bobcat T-shirts and posters, often on a tight deadline. A business relationship grew into a close friendship between Nies and Adam Saxon, an account executive at the Merced print shop.

“I’ve never met anyone quite like Charles. He blends unmatched compassion, care and genuine love with superior intellect and a grasp on the human spirit and what is needed to thrive in a learning environment,” Saxon said. “He will be truly missed.”

UC Merced Charles Nies and Professor Emily Langdon
Nies and his wife, Professor Emily Langdon, after his commencement speech.

At spring commencement, Nies embraced an opportunity to convey inspiration and gratitude as the keynote speaker for the School of Engineering and the School of Natural Science. Here are his closing words:

“By embracing the spirit of excellence — by being who you are — you cast a light for others to see. And in so doing, through your light you provide direction for the future. Through your light, you cast aside darkness and provide what light represents: wisdom, joy, goodness, hope.

“So as you and I both graduate from UC Merced and go forward, we do so with mixed emotions from our shared journey at this remarkable university. But let us go forward with confidence in our pursuit of excellence, strengthened by our lessons of determination, service and authenticity and equipped with the tools to be a lantern.

“Because our world needs more lanterns. Our world needs more light.

“Our world needs you.”