From Cotton Fields to University Leadership

From Cotton Fields to University Leadership

All Eyes on Charlie, A Memoir
Charlie Nelms
Distribution: Global
Publication date: 03/29/2019
ISBN: 978-0-253-04019-0
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Charlie Nelms had audaciously big dreams. Growing up black in the Deep South in the 1950s and 1960s, working in cotton fields, and living in poverty, Nelms dared to dream that he could do more with his life than work for white plantation owners sun-up to sun-down. Inspired by his parents, who first dared to dream that they could own their own land and have the right to vote, Nelms chose education as his weapon of choice for fighting racism and inequality.

With hard work, determination, and the critical assistance of mentors who counseled him along the way, he found his way from the cotton fields of Arkansas to university leadership roles. Becoming the youngest and the first African American chancellor of a predominately white institution in Indiana, he faced tectonic changes in higher education during those ensuing decades of globalization, growing economic disparity, and political divisiveness. From Cotton Fields to University Leadership is an uplifting story about the power of education, the impact of community and mentorship, and the importance of dreaming big.

Author Bio

Charlie Nelms, a native of the Arkansas Delta, has devoted his life to equalizing opportunities for disenfranchised peoples. He is currently a senior scholar at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and a Center Scholar at the Center for Postsecondary Research, Indiana University School of Education, as well as retired Chancellor, North Carolina Central University, and IU Vice President for Institutional Development and Student Affairs Emeritus. In retirement, he works with historically Black colleges and universities to strengthen leadership and governance.

Dr. Walter M. Kimbrough is president of Dillard University in New Orleans, Louisiana. Dr. Kimbrough holds degrees from the University of Georgia, Miami University of Ohio, and Georgia State University. He has been recognized for his research on historically black colleges and universities, African American men in college, and fraternaties and sororities. In 2010 he was named as part of the Ebony Magazine Power 100 list and in 2013 he became one of NBC News/The's 100 African Americans making history today.



Far too often we meet leaders and forget their journeys to leadership. We forget the struggles, the stumbles, the surprises, and the enormous amount of hard work they put in, amidst twists and turns along the journey. Charlie Nelms has written an autobiography that is authentic, humble, and serves as an example for those leaders who will follow him. His voice, honesty, humor, and compassion shine through his life story.


 (Dr. Marybeth Gasman, Director, Penn Center for Minority-Serving Institutions, author of Educating a Diverse Nation: Lessons from Minority-Serving Institutions)

"I have called Charlie Nelms a friend for almost 40 years. In his memoir, the realities of his life take on the qualities of a good docudrama, providing the back story to the development of a remarkable educational leader. His is "the examined life," filled with honesty, humor, and humility. While this is uniquely Charlie's story, it is a story that will lift the hearts of many and inspire future generations of leaders."

 (Betty J. Overton, Director, National Forum on Higher Education for the Public Good)


In the tradition of Booker Washington and Benjamin Mays, Charlie Nelms tells his riveting story from share croppers' son in rural Arkansas to university president. His memoir is a testament to the power of aspiration, character and education to overcome poverty and adversity. At a time when young people ask if college matters, Nelms' testimony is proof that university education remains an engine of social mobility and personal transformation.


 (Michael L. Lomax, President & CEO, United Negro College Fund (UNCF))

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Table of Contents

Foreword by Dr. Walter M. Kimbrough



1. "I'll Fly Away"

2. How I Got Over

3. Tacks and Splinters

4. College Bound

5. From Dairy-hand to Bookstore Clerk

6. Everything Before Us

7. Boot Camp

8. "If I Had a Hammer"

9. Holding Fast

10. This Spinning Top

11. Full Circle