“I’ve been really blessed with people’s generosity,” Nikkel said Wednesday from his main-floor office in the historic Lohrenz Building—his last week on the job before retirement becomes official Dec. 31. “I’m glad to hear that, but people have been very gracious.”
Nikkel came to the job with a significant resume in church-based administration, including 26 years with Prairie View and five with Mennonite Health Services.
But a college president?
“I don’t know how long the list would have been for it to have been on the list of things I either wanted to do, thought I could do, or should do,” he said.
But when David Brandt announced his resignation as Tabor’s president in spring 1998, Nikkel understood why the board of directors thought he was the logical choice to step in as interim: He was the board chair and had worked closely with Brandt to develop the school’s new strategic plan.
Still, Nikkel felt his resume was lacking the academic requirements to be president.
“I really felt that without a Ph.D., I wouldn’t have the credentials, I wouldn’t have the integrity, I wouldn’t have the respect of people,” he said. “Even when I did decide to come in, that was a concern to me.”
It didn’t take long for Nikkel’s concerns to abate.
“I started Aug. 1 of 1998 and I’d say by the end of September or so, it didn’t take long for the little messages to start filtering back to me: ‘Well maybe a Ph.D. isn’t all that important.’”
The years that followed have been full of challenges, but Nikkel said he looks back at his administration with a good measure of satisfaction.
Asked to list the achievements at the top of his list, Nikkel was quick to acknowledge the contributions of those who labored alongside him at the college.
“This is not false humility, but it’s absolutely true that what we’ve done, we’ve done together,” Nikkel said.
In no particular order, he listed several highlights:
Completing the five-year, $8.8 million capital campaign that resulted in new student townhouses.
“It was fun not only to achieve the result, but to connect with thousands—and this is not an exaggeration—of people and being in their homes and seeing their businesses,” Nikkel said. “That was just really nice.”
“I’d like to turn the video machine back a while and just remind myself what this place looked like when I came,” Nikkel said. “I think the campus aesthetics have almost entirely revamped the campus, whether it’s flower beds or trees or hard-surfacing the parking lots. Just to know that for some people who knew what it was like 10 years ago or longer, and what’s like now, makes you feel people have noticed.”
A growing ethos of excellence on campus.
“Generally, people have embraced the idea that I have always believed before coming here—that you can get better, that you can make progress,” he said. “On top of that, it doesn’t necessarily take a lot of money.”
Tabor’s new mission statement: “Preparing people for a life of learning, work and service for Christ and his kingdom.”
“That was really the product of a lot of people’s vision—and I love it,” Nikkel said. “If we could achieve our vision, we’d be the best college around.”
Restructuring Tabor College-Wichita into the School of Adult and Graduate Studies.
“This has been established as a separate school in kind of a university model,” Nikkel said. “We have very, very good people there now. I think we have the potential for really doing well.”
Enlarging the school’s donor base.
“People who were giving before are giving at higher levels now, and people who were not giving before are now giving,” Nikkel said. “So we’ve both broadened and deepened the donor base. I think that’s so important because schools like this will forever need strong support from alumni and friends.”
Strengthening the staff.
“We’ve had good administration and faculty for a long time,” Nikkels said. “But I think it’s as strong as I’ve seen, maybe ever.
“That these people have come to join us in this important work is just so satisfying because they certainly haven’t come for salary. But to come with some sense of passion and competence—wow, that is really great.”
On the flip side, Nikkel said his list of things that are not yet completed is long, and he leaves with at least a couple of disappointments.
“I’m very disappointed we didn’t achieve the extreme makeover of the Lohrenz Building that it deserves,” he said. “It would have been brutal to go through it because we’d all have to be displaced somewhere. But to have that done, and to secure the future of this building, would have been a wonderful achievement.”
Nikkel said his other disappointment was not seeing the athletic stadium project completed in partnership with USD 410.
“Frankly, there were two things that were problems,” Nikkel said. “One was my heart attack. I was gone for a couple of months when we really would have done a lot more planning and fund-raising. The second thing, of course, is the lawsuit, which was a huge factor in slowing things down.
“But you know what? There’s a lot of things we’re not in control of. When that happens, you just have to say, well, OK, somebody else will get to pick it up and finish it.”
Looking to retirement
Nikkel said he isn’t one to map his retirement in detail. He knows part of it will include helping his successor, Jules Glanzer, make the transition to the presidency starting Feb. 1.
Nikkel has also agreed, at Glanzer’s request, to oversee development of a “centennial plaza” to be constructed on campus to mark the college’s 100th year of operation in 2008.
He also has been elected to the board of Mennonite Mutual Aid and has received several similar offers to engage his experience and expertise.
“The truth is, those feel a little too much like work,” he said with a chuckle.
“But I have lots of interests that I’ve kind of put on the shelf, whether it’s birding or tennis or biking or gardening or reading or spending time with our family and grandkids. I have a lot of things I like to do.
“I want to be reflective and probably write—not for the public, but for reflection,” he added. “And I want to do meaningful volunteer work. I don’t know what that means yet.”
Nikkel said he and wife Elaine plan to move to Wichita eventually, but are in no particular hurry to leave Hillsboro. When it happens, he said he will miss his association with the community.
“I have not invested myself very much in local boards and committees and all that kind of thing,” he said. “I told (Mayor) Delores Dalke one time after I came that I think the biggest contribution I can make to the community is to see that (Tabor) does well. That’s where we’ve really placed my energy.
“But having said that, I’ve been really appreciative of the community of Hillsboro. I’m very much aware that we have people whose loyalties extend beyond Tabor College.
“But this has been a very welcoming community. I think we all know that a healthy Hillsboro is good for Tabor, and a healthy Tabor is good for Hillsboro. So I think we have a good sense of partnership and common goals.
“I’m very appreciative for the way the community has supported Tabor and served as a host community.”
To read the entire interview on which this article is based, click here.