An outstanding college president who promoted justice & avoided violence

The following column originally was published in several APG of East Central Minnesota Newspapers during April, 2023.

An outstanding, under-appreciated college president

This is the story of violence and bloodshed averted because of one man. It’s a description of peaceful changes on a college campus during a tumultuous time. It’s the account of a husband recovering after his wife was killed when struck by a truck. And it’s an explanation of justice for some Japanese Americans after massive injustice. All this, and more, is in the recently published book “Great Purpose: The Life of John W. Nason” by Bruce William Colwell (Carleton College Press).

John Nason, courtesy of Swarthmore College

I’m not neutral about Nason. I think he was a brilliant, under-appreciated leader.

He was president of two liberal arts colleges, Swarthmore and Carleton. I attended Carleton from 1966-1970 — years when the U.S. was divided as it is today. Many colleges had violent sit-ins and sometimes considerable damage to their buildings. But not at Carleton, because of Nason.

Decades before this St. Paul native became Carleton’s president, he worked for justice. A Quaker, he led fellow college presidents in 1945 who reached out to college-age Japanese Americans. Thousands of these youngsters, along with their families, had their homes and businesses taken away. They were imprisoned in “detention camps” during World War II, despite no evidence they committed any crime.

Nason led a group of college presidents who arranged, despite continuing hostility toward the Japanese, for more than 3,000 Japanese American college scholarships. Though he made many speeches, and we talked often when he led Carleton, I never heard him mention this.

However, Whit Knapp, son of Nason’s second wife, told me, “John spoke of his embarrassment as an American that our country interned totally innocent people, whether Japanese or other.” He regarded his work “as a small effort to right a national wrong.”

During the 1955 Christmas season, a driver lost control of his truck and killed Nason’s first wife, who was standing on the curb. Having been married for 48 years to my wonderful wife, it’s almost inconceivable to me how much such a sudden loss would hurt.

But Nason kept going and later remarried. He became Carleton’s president in 1962, a tumultuous time. Though he was sometimes stiff, he believed in listening to students, even if he didn’t always agree. For example, instead of Carleton administrators deciding how to spend money on student activities, he transferred tens of thousands of dollars to the student government to spend as we thought appropriate.

I chaired that budget committee. While giving me the final decision, he wisely urged increasing the diversity of members, rather than the mostly white student leaders who’d served in previous years.

Nason also was one of the first highly-regarded liberal arts college presidents to increase the diversity of their student body and to help modify the curriculum to be more accurate and inclusive.

In his last spring as president, 1970, Nason tried to navigate between conservative trustees and liberal faculty and students on how to vote shares of General Motors stock in a proxy battle. Ralph Nader was pushing for greater car safety, and civil rights groups demanded more diverse hiring. Nason recommended neutrality. But the trustees sided with GM. Nason called to tell me about his deep disappointment with this decision.

Several of us met to discuss our response. Some wanted to sit-in or damage a building. But out of respect for Nason’s willingness to listen and work with us, we decided instead to picket the Deephaven, Minnesota, home of Carleton trustees chair Hugh Galusha. Mrs. Galusha and their daughter tried to serve us lemonade. We passed. However, modeling Nason, we peacefully explained our concerns.

Colwell’s book includes these and many other stories. Nason looked like the tall, old white male stereotype of a college president. (See He sometimes came across as stiff. Colwell thinks, and I agree, that Nason is under-appreciated.


John Nason, courtesy of Carleton College archives


Nason modeled listening, learning, inclusion and constructive compromise. As Colwell concludes, Nason “lived a purposeful life, spending it on many things that have outlasted (him). … That is his gift to us today.” –

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school educator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome at or @JoeNathan9249 on Twitter.