August 22, 2011 — Raymond J. Nelson, English professor and former dean of the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Virginia, died Aug. 19 in Charlottesville. He would have been 73 years old on Sept. 5.
A memorial service is being planned for September, the date to be announced later.
Nelson joined U.Va.'s faculty in 1969 after receiving his doctorate from Stanford University and his B.A. from the University of Connecticut in 1965. He served in the U.S. Coast Guard from 1958 to 1962.
He began leading Arts & Sciences in 1989 as dean of the faculty, a position that was consolidated in 1995 to include deanships of the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. He held the post until 1997, then returned to teaching in the Department of English.
In 1996, he was elected the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of English; the next year he moved to a newly created chair, the Arts & Sciences Professorship, which he held until his death. That professorship, thanks to an anonymous donor, will now become the Raymond J. Nelson Professorship.
Nelson's leadership during an era of financial austerity is credited with helping keep Virginia among a select few top universities strongly committed to both excellent undergraduate education and world-class research. For his effective leadership, he received the Thomas Jefferson Award, U.Va.'s highest honor, at Fall Convocation in October 1999.
Nelson made significant progress in fundraising for the College of Arts & Sciences, former provost Peter Low said when in announcing that Nelson was stepping down as dean. Nelson said the development effort was one of the greatest satisfactions of his tenure, along with being able to enhance the College's academic quality, despite budget cuts.
During Nelson's tenure, U.S. News & World Report in 1995 ranked U.Va. the top public university for the first time – it was No. 17 overall – and the most efficient of all institutions, public or private. Nelson wrote in a column to donors that the College could claim some credit because it educated more than 60 percent of students, as well as housing the basic academic disciplines.
Nelson also oversaw a two-year self-study that was an early draft of the restructuring plan for increased autonomy, submitted to the Virginia General Assembly in 1994.
U.Va. leaders praised his administrative accomplishments.
John T. Casteen III, president emeritus, called Nelson "a quietly effective, brave and wise leader, whose vision for the College and sense of how to achieve that vision shaped the College in every way, and in fact became the College as we now know it. His years as dean of the faculty amply demonstrate his impact on a school that he loved and served selflessly."
Meredith Jung-En Woo, current dean of the College, described Nelson as "a formidable scholar and visionary leader who left a legacy of integrity and excellence with the College of Arts & Sciences."
"I, and other deans who have followed Ray, owe him our gratitude for helping build a strong foundation at the College that enables us to continue to provide our students with a profound educational experience," she said.
From the beginning, Nelson supported the Teaching Resource Center, said French professor Marva Barnett, director of the center that opened its doors in 1990, and he was instrumental in keeping her at U.Va., she said.
"In fact, Ray suggested that I apply for the National Endowment for the Humanities Challenge Grant that began the endowment funding of our NEH Distinguished Teaching Professorships – and he raised all the additional funding to the meet the challenge," she said.
He served as associate chair of the English department from 1981 to 1984. He was also one of the department's graduate advisers.
"Ray Nelson was a dedicated teacher, a true scholar and a wise administrator with a sense of humor – an excellent combination," said Cynthia Wall, chair of the English department. "Quiet and gentle, he was nevertheless a presence, and we will miss him very much."
Nelson also saw the Virginia Film Festival incorporated into the College of Arts & Sciences as part of an expanded film studies program.
While serving as dean, Nelson continued to teach English and American literature at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. He specialized and taught courses in 19th- and 20th-century American literature and the history of American English and American dictionaries.
Among his scholarly work, he edited and annotated a book of Melvin Tolson's poetry, "Harlem Gallery and Other Poems." Nelson also published "Van Wyck Brooks: A Writer's Life" and "Kenneth Patchen and American Mysticism," which won the Poetry Society of America's prestigious Melville Cane Award as the best critical book of 1984 on American poetry. He also wrote numerous articles on other American writers, including Herman Melville, Chester Himes and Weldon Kees.
"He was a tremendous reader," Casteen said.
In the 1990s, he became adept at photomicrography – photos of magnified images of microscopic objects, and an exhibition of his photomicrographs, "Everything Up Close," was held in Fayerweather Hall in 1998. He was also a book collector and dealer.
He is survived by his wife, Claudine Ligot Nelson; his daughter, Sylvie Nelson Casper, of Centreville, and her husband, Steve; his son, Chris Nelson, of Palmyra, and his wife Heather; and four grandchildren.