PSU professor and dean emerita Kristine Nelson dies at age 68

Nelson influential in growing School of Social Work

Kristine Nelson, professor and dean emerita at Portland State’s School of Social Work, passed away on April 22 after a long struggle with cancer.

Nelson influential in growing School of Social Work

Kristine Nelson, professor and dean emerita at Portland State’s School of Social Work, passed away on April 22 after a long struggle with cancer.

“She was a scholar, a historian, and she really cared,” said Katharine Cahn, executive director of the Child Welfare Partnership. “Her life work was dedicated to improving child welfare.”

Kristine Nelson was the first female dean of PSU’s School of Social Work.
Kristine Nelson was the first female dean of PSU’s School of Social Work.

Nelson came to PSU in 1993 as a professor of social work, teaching classes on child welfare and practice. Nancy Koroloff, interim dean for the department, said that students would tell her that they appreciated Nelson being grounded in reality and that she knew what she was talking about, since she had been a public child welfare worker for a number of years.

“Students often came away with the sense of advocacy and ability to make a difference, particularly in federal policy,” Koroloff said. “Recently, she has worked with several doctoral students. She has continued to keep that kind of focus.”

As a professor, Nelson set high standards for her students. She really believed in PSU’s motto that students learn best out in the community, according to Cahn.

Nelson served many positions at PSU: In 1996 she became the curriculum chair, in 1998 the director of the Master in Social Work program, in 2001 the associate dean of the School of Social Work, in 2004 the interim dean of the School and in 2005 she was the first female dean of the school. She retired in June 2011.

Under Nelson’s leadership, the school added two undergraduate programs, the doctoral and master’s programs grew, and the school itself grew and became more complex. Nelson reorganized the entire administration team so program directors had more authority. She was also a prolific grant writer.

“She provided strong and clear leadership at the time that the school really needed it because of its fast growth and always helped us remember our basic values and commitments to social justice,” Koroloff said. “She was our moral compass.”

In her administration, Nelson raised money so that the school could have its own office space in the Academic and Student Rec Center. The money she raised was also used to purchase furniture for the office. Additionally, she forged a relationship between the school and New Avenues for Youth, a program which provides for homeless youth in Portland.

“She saw the importance of social work education responding to needs of space, was very engaged in community partnerships and responsive to input of community in order to shape our social work education program to meet the needs of the community we serve,” said Pauline Jivanjee, associate dean at the School of Social Work. “Problems are changing all the time, so we need to graduate students who are well prepared to respond to those needs. She really prioritized that.”

Colleagues described Nelson as honest, straightforward, energetic, kind, hardworking, very intelligent and passionate about social justice. “She was not one of those people who beat around the bush,” Koroloff said. “I loved that, and thought it was great. It was very straightforward to work with her.”

Nelson was concerned with providing scholarships for students, particularly students of color and the disadvantaged. She often raised funds for student scholarships. Before she died, Nelson set up a scholarship up for doctoral students working in social justice areas. While at PSU, Nelson increased emphasis on social justice and lead some initiatives to develop anti-oppressive, successful faculty recruitment efforts, according to Jivanjee.

Nelson had roots in social rights, participating in early social justice movements as a youth, which she carried with her. She was internationally known as a child welfare scholar and historian. She was an expert on national child welfare and was widely published in community based and family-centered practice. Before she came to PSU, Nelson was the director of research at the University of Iowa, a national resource of family based services. She was a social worker in Harlem, N.Y., and a program evaluator in Austin, Texas.

“She was instrumental in establishing Portland State’s reputation as a research university,” Cahn said. “Even as dean, she continued to be active researcher and scholar,” Jivanjee added.

Cahn said that Nelson was always pushing for a paradigm shift in child welfare. “She would say to me, ‘I want to write that one big idea that will have child welfare really work in ways that are fair to families,’” Cahn said. Nelson was concerned with keeping families together rather than having them split apart. She was a national leader in the movement to draw attention to this method of child welfare, and she contributed to some national reforms in that regard.

Before Nelson passed away, she finished a book on child welfare, which was only one of many pieces of literature she had published. Cahn said that Nelson’s work made a contribution to social work history. “She would say to me, ‘I really want to crack the code on child neglect,’” Cahn said.

In 2010, Nelson received a lifetime achievement award from the Oregon chapter of the National Association of Social Work for outstanding service as a social work practitioner, researcher, scholar educator and dean.

Hobbies that Nelson enjoyed included skiing, hiking and traveling. She was very active and enjoyed the outdoors. She also had a Buddhist practice, which was important to her.

A memorial will be held for Nelson on campus in Lincoln Hall, room 75, the basement recital area, on May 20 at 3 p.m. A reception will follow at the Simon Benson House. All are invited; the president and the provost of PSU plan to speak at the service.

“She will be very, very missed,” Cahn said. “She has left a great legacy.”