Nils Hasselmo led the University of Minnesota through a turbulent stretch of its history.
He took the helm of the U in 1988, at a time of pushback against efforts to make admissions more selective and a lapse in public trust in the institution.
Serving through 1997, his tenure was marked by tough decisions such as the 1991 closure of the Waseca campus amid a budget shortfall. On his watch, the university improved graduation rates and reduced class sizes, raising its profile as an undergraduate teaching institution.
With his Swedish low-key but straight-forward manner, he navigated difficult issues with a steady, calm focus. And while some of his critics disagreed with him, even they respected him for his keen sense of justice and integrity, said Mario Bognanno, who served as chief of staff during Hasselmo’s second term as president.
Hasselmo, 87, died Wednesday after a 20-year battle with prostate cancer, family members said.
He has been credited with restoring the university to a more stable footing and placing a major emphasis on accountability. University officials on Wednesday noted that Hasselmo relentlessly championed the value of the U to all Minnesotans.
In a piece published on his last day as president, Hasselmo wrote: “We must all understand the unique nature of Minnesota’s only research, land-grant University. It should not and cannot be exactly like any other institution.”
U President Eric Kaler said Wednesday evening that the U has lost a dedicated member of its community.
“Nils was a remarkable higher education leader, and our University is better because of his service,” Kaler said in a statement.
Hasselmo was born and raised in Sweden and moved to the United States in the 1950s. He first joined the university in 1965 as a professor of Scandinavian languages and literature and later became associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts and vice president for administration and planning. He left in 1983 after he was recruited to serve as provost at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
He returned to the U to take over for Kenneth Keller, who stepped down after three years as president. Hasselmo supported many of Keller’s goals: a renewed focus on undergraduate education, an emphasis on living on campus and a push for on-time graduation. But he set out to shift the way the U was presenting them to a Minnesota public wary of a university that was setting a much higher bar on acceptance.
“He arrived on campus and had many colleagues and friends from his years as a professor and administrator,” said Bognanno. “He had the faculty’s support.”
In navigating some controversial issues, Hasselmo always let the facts fall where they may, Bognanno said.
When Dr. John Najarian, a transplant surgeon at the U’s medical school was accused of violating federal drug rules, Hasselmo didn’t surrender to pressures to intervene, Bognanno said. He let people do their jobs and justice take its course, he added.
The government eventually dropped the charges, but only after a university investigation, a $32 million settlement paid by the school and damage to the medical school’s reputation. Later in his presidency, Hasselmo was able to resolve a standoff over tenure between faculty and the U’s governing board.
“Through it all he was upfront and very candid,” Bognanno said.
Retired Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page, who served on the University’s Board of Regents from 1989 to 1993, remembered Haselmo’s quiet strength and fortitude to move the university forward.
“He was a steady hand,” Page said. “He was focused and kept his eye what was important. … He had that steady calming influence. It didn’t seem like we were being over taken by events — he was in control.”
Hasselmo made the U a “very good” campus for undergraduates and undergraduate education, said Phil Shively, who served as one of Hasselmo’s vice provosts. But he also aimed for excellence in research and graduation education.
“He knew what a university should be. … He had real vision,” Shively said. “It was easy for him to do the right thing. He was always a gentleman with a lovely, understated Swedish sense of humor.”
When he decided to close the Waseca campus, which offered two-year technical degrees, he chose to travel there and deliver the news in person, arguing other public institutions in the region would step in to serve students.
“Dad knew there were some challenges at the U,” said his son, Peter Hasselmo. “But he felt confident that he knew enough about the place and the people to make an impact.”
He is survived by his second wife, Ann, three children, a stepdaughter, six grandchildren — two of whom are undergraduates at the U — three stepgrandchildren and a great-grandchild born earlier this month.