Charlie Nelms is a nationally recognized leader in higher education, a compelling storyteller, and a dedicated activist. One of eleven children born to subsistence farmers in the Arkansas Delta, Charlie experienced first-hand the pain of poverty and the sting of racism and legalized segregation: American style apartheid. He did not merely read about “Colored Only” waiting rooms, water fountains, and restrooms; he used them. While growing up in the Delta, Charlie chopped and picked cotton from sunup to sundown. He attended school only after the crop was laid-by or harvested, for never more than five months of the year. Everything in his all-black school was previously used by white children, except the chalk.
Although Charlie’s parents had little formal education, they treasured education as the engine of opportunity. They bequeathed their values to their children, who grew up believing they could become anything they wanted to be. While poverty and discrimination shaped Charlie as he sought to escape their grip, he has never felt the need to escape his responsibility for eradicating their pernicious effects. Charlie deeply believes that equity and excellence are core principles of democracy, and both are achievable.
Charlie obtained his undergraduate degree from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, a historically Black College and University (HBCU). He earned his master’s and doctorate from Indiana University, with which he has nearly half a century of affiliation. Charlie is the first African American to be appointed chancellor of an IU campus and vice president of the University. In 2019, IU awarded him an honorary doctorate, and he is also the recipient of its highest honors: The President’s Medal for Excellence, the Distinguished Alumni Service Award, and the Thomas Hart Benton Mural Medallion for Distinguished Achievement. Charlie is Professor Emeritus at IU. He holds honorary degrees from Earlham College and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and is an Arkansas Hall of Fame nominee.
Charlie’s eminent career includes serving as chancellor at Indiana University East, the University of Michigan-Flint, and North Carolina Central University (NCCU). During his tenure as chancellor of NCCU, U.S. News & World Report ranked it as one of the best public HBCUs in the nation for three consecutive years. Charlie has received numerous national accolades for his higher education leadership, including prestigious fellowships from the Ford Foundation and the American Council on Education. In addition, he has been widely recognized for tackling issues beyond academia in our communities-at-large. In 2012, President Obama honored him with the MLK Drum Major for Service Award for helping to address the most pressing needs in our nation.
Charlie’s life has been profoundly shaped by mentors who gave unselfishly of their expertise, time, and energy to insure his success. Their only request was that he pass along to others what had been invested in him. Charlie has done this by mentoring aspiring professionals across the boundaries of ethnicity, gender, geography, and political affiliation. More than 25 of his protégés have become college presidents, while countless others occupy leadership positions in education, healthcare, and public service. He passes the torch of mentorship by encouraging and empowering people to recognize and fulfill their highest potential.
Charlie firmly believes that philanthropy should not focus on enriching the lives of the wealthy. The fact that his own life was influenced by acts of philanthropy by persons known and unknown to him, prompted Charlie and his wife to become philanthropists. In addition to contributing every year to numerous charitable causes, they established the Charlie & Jeanetta Nelms Endowed Scholarship at four universities, making college more affordable for approximately 30 students a year. They also support endowments that assist minority graduate student professional development, mentorship, and faculty development. In addition, proceeds from the sale of his books have been contributed to an array of charitable causes, including Habitat for Humanity, disaster relief, the United Nations World Food Programme, academic scholarships, and other philanthropic endeavors.
Charlie is a passionate advocate for HBCUs because of their demonstrable record of educating countless generations of students who opened the door for others and working tirelessly to level the playing field for historically disenfranchised people. His expertise on HBCUs and other matters is in constant demand. As a higher education consultant, Charlie has worked with more than 100 institutions with a focus on accreditation and institutional effectiveness, strategic planning, enrollment management, governance and leadership, diversity and inclusion, among other issues. Charlie has served on numerous boards, including the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, John Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education, Higher Learning Commission, American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), National Survey for Student Engagement, and First Bank Richmond. He is a founder of the AASCU Millennium Leadership Initiative, the nation’s top leadership program for the traditionally underrepresented in higher education.
Charlie is a highly-sought guest panelist and commentator on various radio programs and podcasts. For five years, he was a Huffington Post blogger, where he wrote wide-ranging pieces, from the political to the personal. Charlie is the author of Having My Say: Reflections of a Black Baby Boomer. His memoir, From Cotton Fields to University Leadership: All Eyes on Charlie (IU Press, 2019) will be featured during IU’s bicentennial celebrations. A portion of proceeds will be donated for HBCU scholarships.
A captivating orator, Charlie possesses the ability to connect with audiences from all walks of life. Through his storytelling, he helps audiences to see beyond what is, so they can imagine what is possible when transcending their own immediate interests. In his writing, Charlie knows how to tell a story that resonates with readers. He is neither afraid nor reluctant to reveal his vulnerabilities to reach people where they actually are. As an activist, Charlie believes that actions are more powerful than words—and we all have a responsibility to leave the world a better place than we found it.