Former colleagues remember Nils Hasselmo as caring leader of University

Nils Hasselmo, who died Wednesday at 87, was a Scandinavian languages professor before his tenure as UMN president from 1988 to 1997.

President Nils Hasselmo speaks at Northrop auditorium during, Six Presidents. Four Decades of Leadership. One University, on May 4, 2015.

President Nils Hasselmo speaks at Northrop auditorium during, “Six Presidents. Four Decades of Leadership. One University,” on May 4, 2015.

by Helen Sabrowsky

Former University of Minnesota President Nils Hasselmo — described as “even-keeled” and “down-to-earth” by those who knew him — died Wednesday at the age of 87. 

Hasselmo, who served as University president from 1988-1997, faced several challenges during his tenure, including reduced legislative support of the University, the closing of the Waseca campus and scandals in the Medical School and the athletics department. But despite challenges, Hasselmo remained dedicated to improving the school and its perception while leading with integrity, according to those who knew him.

Hasselmo was born in Sweden and moved to the United States in the 1950s. He joined the University as a professor of Scandinavian language and literature in 1965 before serving as president. While at the University, Hasselmo also served as the University’s vice president for administration and planning and associate dean for the College of Liberal Arts.  

“He really took the job of president with a lot of vigor and commitment. It was really important to him,” said Mario Bognanno, who served as chief of staff during Hasselmo’s second term. 

In addition to strengthening enrollment and graduation rates, Hasselmo also worked to improve campus for students by increasing student housing and his interaction with undergraduates, Bognanno said. 

Larry Perlman, who served on the Board of Regents from 1993 to 1995, praised Hasselmo’s commitment to students. “The student focus that he brought to the job was impressive and has continued, as far as I know, to today,” he said. 

The tradition of the University president helping undergraduate students move into residence halls began under Hasselmo’s tenure, said Amelious Whyte, who worked in the Office of Student Affairs while Hasselmo was in office. 

As University president, Hasselmo understood the school’s responsibility in the Minnesota community, said Charles Casey, who served as regent from 1979 to 1991. 

“He was always very comfortable in this position. He was confident and comfortable, but there was not a bit of arrogance ever with Nils Hasselmo,” said Casey. “It was always so refreshing to see him be so open and honest — it was just part of him.”

When the University closed its Waseca campus, Hasselmo went to deliver the news in person to faculty, staff and students, Whyte said. 

Further, Hasselmo worked to advance LGBTQ issues on campus, something uncommon at the time, said Whyte. During the early 1990s, Hasselmo commissioned a report on LGBT issues, which resulted in the creation of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender (Allies) Program Office, he said. 

Hasselmo cared deeply for the University and the Twin Cities and their communities, said Bognanno, adding that Hasselmo loved lutefisk. 

“Nils was right for the University of Minnesota, but he was right because it was in Minnesota. He felt at home here,” Bognanno said. 

In addition to his commitment to the University, Hasselmo was also an active member of the Swedish-American community, said Bruce Karstadt, president and CEO of the American Swedish Institute. 

“Everyone found him to be a kind, generous and congenial fellow who could help find solutions and soothe over issues and problems to keep up the positive community spirit,” Karztadt said.

After leaving the University, Hasselmo went on to serve as president of the Association of American Universities from 1998 to 2006. 

Matt Owens, executive vice president and vice president of federal relations at AAU, said Hasselmo dealt with the after-effects the 9/11 attacks had on higher education. 

At the time, significant concerns over national security and foreign influence hindered the work of international academia, but Hasselmo, an international scholar himself, stressed the importance of international collaboration and intellectual exchange.

But above all of his commitments to various communities and organizations, Hasselmo’s first priority was always his family, said Bognanno. 

“As a person, first and foremost he was really a family man,” Bognanno said. “He had a wife and three kids and, boy, they really were number one in his right, and number two was the University. He genuinely loved the University of Minnesota.”