After 25 years, Nilsson will retire from MIT

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Karen Nilsson will step down from her position as Senior Associate Dean for Residential Life this June, after 25 years at MIT.
Stephanie Keeler

Karen Nilsson, the senior associate dean for Residential Life, will retire early and leave her position on June 30.

Until then, Nilsson will continue to serve full-time. She will work on winding down her responsibilities, and plans to remain in the office part time during July and August to help transition the new dean.

An official search for Nilsson’s replacement has begun and the position has been posted on several job search sites. According to Tom Gearty, a spokesman for Dean for Student Life, it is still early in the search process, and no appropriate candidates have been found.

“[Nilsson’s successor] really needs to understand that MIT culture exists. Someone who is going to be successful is going to have to be able to embrace and work with it,” said Peter D. Cummings, Senior Director of Finance for DSL.

This is Nilsson’s 25th year at MIT. “She has been here from 1985 till now, in all of her various jobs … you can say that there are few people who have not been affected by Karen’s work,” said Gearty. “Because of her longevity here, she is a great resource. Her wisdom and guidance have been very important.”

“Having been here as long as I have been, I’ve been thinking about [retirement] for a long time” said Nilsson. As for the future, Nilsson is headed to a house on the beach, but her other plans are not yet finalized.

“I want to spend more time with my family, my grandchildren … I have my children in the area.”

In her role as a senior associate dean, Nilsson has responsibilities with Housing, Dining, and Residential programs and FSILGs. Nilsson has held many other posts at MIT. “Karen has affected thousands and thousand of lives at MIT over the course of her career,” said Gearty.

As she organizes all the files and contacts she has accumulated in order to pass on to her successor, Nilsson is happy to reflect on her years at MIT. “It’s a chance to recall… So I am trying to, before I leave, to describe the history of my work,” she says.

Nilsson cites her interactions with students as the highlight of her career. “Commencement day is my most exciting day because I see folks walk across the stage to get that diploma,” she says. “By the time you have finished your four years, students have developed into young men and women ready to take on the world.”

Controversies during her tenure

Some may remember Nilsson’s controversial role in requiring a graduate student, Jonathan A. Goler ’04, to remove a Israeli flag hanging outside his window in Sidney-Pacific Graduate Residence. At the time, Nilsson cited fire and safety hazards for her decision, but Goler claimed that it was for political reasons.

Today, Nilsson maintains that the issue was not what the flag was, but the fact that its grommets were slamming into the side of the building and damaging it. “I was accused of something that was very hurtful,” Nilsson says. “It was not about that.” Nilsson says that she is a supporter of Israel. “This is just one issue that Goler and I will never agree on.”

Nilsson also said that such safety violations have forced her to step in at other times. Seven months after the Israeli flag incident, residents at Bexley hung up a a banner reading “Bexxxley support Karen Nilssan [sic]” but Nilsson requested that they remove the banner as well because it was in danger of drifting into traffic and causing accidents.

“Even in the most difficult times, my value system is if I can say at the end of the day, I did right by the students of MIT and moved the mission of MIT forward, I am OK.” said Nilsson.


Nilsson is particularly proud of the work she’s done to drastically expand graduate housing on campus to include The Warehouse (NW30), NW35 (the new Ashdown House), Sidney Pacific, and Edgerton House. Nilsson has also been active in The MIT Energy Initiative.

Students can thank Nilsson for our system of registering pets for some residence halls. Before 2000, a campus-wide ban on pet ownership had not been enforced, resulting in problems including cats that were not neutered and spayed properly.

The administration then decided to enforce the ban. But because of student opposition, Nilsson worked with Jennifer A. Frank ’00, who served on the MIT Corporation from 2002 to 2007, to craft MIT’s current pet policy, under which cats are officially be allowed in some dorms — on the condition that owners register their pets and ensure that their cats are spayed or neutered and have the necessary vaccinations.

Nilsson’s work has not all been popular. Her support of the decision to convert Ashdown House (W1) to an undergraduate dorm and open a new, more expensive dormitory (NW35) was opposed by graduate students, who did not want to lose one of MIT’s most affordable dorms and were worried about losing the dorm’s sense community.

Nilsson then worked with the Graduate Student Council to come to a consensus about NW35, and what its community spaces and rooms should be like. She believes that in the end, she was able to make the students happy by creating a new living space and community.

“I will miss MIT,” Nilsson says. “It’s been the greatest place I have worked at. It’s given me a career and a life that I’ve never imagined.”