The train that runs through Fort Collins may remind Peter
Nicholls of his childhood in Kent, England.
Growing up, he desperately wanted to be a train conductor and
was prepared for the profession when his parents presented him with
a conductor’s hat and a train set.
“It was absolutely my pride and joy,” he said.
Although the memory of that train set still brings a twinkle to
his eye, his position as provost/academic vice president has
allowed him little time to pursue his childhood hobby.
As provost/academic vice president, Nicholls oversees all issues
dealing with academics in the university’s nine colleges and their
departments. He often listens to faculty, students and
administrative concerns about academics at CSU.
Even during the interview for this “expose” as he called it,
every answer was thoughtfully constructed.
As Nicholls relayed his life as a child growing up in England
and his recent experiences as the provost/academic vice president
at CSU, he worded his answers with careful concentration, pausing
to reflect on the questions.
Nicholls was appointed to his position and moved to Fort Collins
in March of 2002. Being provost requires meeting with many people,
discussing budgetary problems, examining curriculum and, at times,
dealing with personnel issues.
“We’re dealing with a lot of people in this division, and
anytime you deal with a large number of employees, there are going
to be situations that arise,” Nicholls said. “Many times it may be
just meeting with someone and listening to what they have to say.
Many times that’s all it takes.”
Perhaps it is this mentality that has given him a reputation as
a personable man.
“He’s very supportive of our staff. He’s the best supervisor
I’ve ever had,” said Barbara Lyall, assistant to the provost. “I
can’t say enough about him.”
Apparently his English accent adds to his enjoyable
“He has a very funny sense of humor,” said Stacy Dotson, also an
assistant to the provost. “And I think the English accent
Born in Kent, England, Nicholls grew up in a town slightly
smaller than Fort Collins.
Nicholls was part of the first generation in his family to have
an opportunity to attend college. He went to Empirical College in
London, where he studied pure mathematics. In England, college
classes are structured so the same people are in every class
Here, Nicholls met his wife, Trudy, who was one of three women
in his class of 75 students.
“I felt very honored and privileged that we got together,”
Trudy Nicholls, who works as a web programmer in the College of
Veterinary Medicine and Biological Sciences, was studying computer
systems mathematics, and she said her initial attraction to
Nicholls was his sense of humor.
“We loved the same jokes and I really respected him
academically. Our personalities just clicked,” she said. “And he’s
After graduating from Empirical College he enrolled as a
graduate student at Cambridge University with the intention of
becoming a mathematics professor. He graduated in 1970 with a
doctorate in pure mathematics.
His thesis adviser at Cambridge had worked in America and told
Nicholls if he had the opportunity, he should jump at the chance to
work in the United States. So when Nicholls got word in 1971 of a
job opening at Northern Illinois University, he applied.
He was accepted as an assistant professor of mathematics and
moved to DeKalb, Ill., with his wife.
He said the atmosphere and the education systems in the United
States are much different from those in England.
“In the United States, your universities are very large, with
lots of professors,” he said. “The opportunities to move ahead in
your field are great.”
In DeKalb, Nicholls advanced his career as well as his
“I was supposed to being going to this university for one year,
and I ended up staying for 20 years,” he said. “My kids were born,
I got tenure and became associate dean for the college of Liberal
Arts and Sciences.”
He found he enjoyed his responsibilities as associate dean,
where he managed faculty hiring, budgets and the curriculum
process. In 1991, Nicholls decided to apply for a dean position in
the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Kansas State
He spent 10 years at KSU, then in 2002 decided to join the ranks
as one of the vice presidents at CSU.
“I thought (the position) was very attractive,” he said. “Partly
because of the land-grant mission and partly because of the people
that I met.”
Right now, Nicholls is in the midst of searching for new deans
in the College of Applied Human Sciences and the College of Natural
“My goal is to get the best people in the country to run these
colleges,” he said.
Although Nicholls has been a part of CSU for a short time, he
feels he has grown accustomed to his position and CSU’s vision.
“I’ve been here for two years and I feel that I am sort of
hitting my stride in this job. I really feel that I am at a point
now where I can be really efficient as a provost because I know a
lot more about the institution than when I first arrived,” he
In the past two years, he has eased his way into the Colorado
lifestyle, hiking or walking seven to eight miles once a week
around the Foothills.
He said one day he would like to conquer one of the infamous
14,000-foot mountains in Colorado.
Another mountain Nicholls would like to conquer is allowing
CSU’s reputation to precede itself.
“I think our reputation should more accurately reflect what
reality is. We are a school that is not properly understood,” he
said. “We are not properly recognized for the outstanding work that
goes on here.”