Growing up in what he described as a “very poor family,” George Nichols III never imagined he’d get the chance to attend college one day.
Now, the Bowling Green native and 1983 Western Kentucky University graduate has been named to the university’s Board of Regents by Gov. Matt Bevin. He will replace Cynthia Harris, whose term expired June 30. Harris and Nichols are the board’s only African-American members.
“This is an honor, and I’m humbled by this,” Nichols said in an interview.
Nichols is currently the senior vice president in the Office of Governmental Affairs at New York Life Insurance Co. He’s served as the Kentucky commissioner of insurance, special adviser to former Gov. Paul Patton and was also executive director of the Kentucky Health Policy Board during Patton’s administration.
Nichols also serves on the Alice Lloyd College Board of Trustees in eastern Kentucky and is on the Board of Directors for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Nichols will be sworn in during the board’s July 28 meeting, according to a WKU news release. When asked about his political party affiliation, Nichols said he’s a Republican.
Although Nichols currently lives in Potomac, Md., just outside Washington, D.C., he doesn’t see the distance as an obstacle to serving on the board. Nichols has family in Bowling Green and Shelbyville and said he visits Kentucky at least once every two months.
Regents Chair Frederick Higdon said in a news release that “George will be an excellent board member and contributor as WKU begins its newest chapter under the leadership of President (Timothy) Caboni.”
After speaking with Nichols on the phone, Regent Phillip Bale described Nichols as “a very personable guy” and praised his broad background in health care, insurance and working with organizational budgets. Bale will replace Higdon as chair during the next board meeting.
Regent John Ridley was also impressed with Nichols’ experience, but noted that he hasn’t spoken with him yet.
“We welcome his expertise and his life experiences to add value to an excellent board of regents,” Ridley said.
Born and raised in Bowling Green, Nichols said that although his parents only had a sixth-grade education, they pushed him to get a college degree. He met his wife, Cynthia, at WKU and has provided gifts that supported the construction of the Chandler Memorial Chapel and a scholarship.
Going into his new role as a regent, Nichols said he’d like to expand the university’s efforts to diversify its student population. Although he described WKU’s efforts on that front as “tremendous,” he’d like more minority and female students going into math, science and technology fields.
“Things like that I think are really important,” he said. “I’d like to see more of that.”
Nichols said the university responded well to racist incidents on campus last school year, including when an African-American student’s car was vandalized with a racial epithet and when an African-American associate dean received threatening messages.
“I’m not surprised,” Nichols said of the incidents, adding that similar incidents occur across the country. Growing up in Bowling Green, Nichols said he’s no stranger to racism. He remembers how his family would receive warning fliers whenever the Ku Klux Klan would march downtown.
Nevertheless, Nichols said he believes there are more good people than bad in the world.
“You have to set a tone of what is tolerable and what’s not and how you want to run things,” Nichols said. “The university has the right policies in place.”
John Paul Blair, interim vice president for development and alumni relations, praised George and Cynthia Nichols’ pivotal role in support of the university through philanthropy. They gave $100,000 to the Chandler Memorial Chapel and created a scholarship for WKU students from Jefferson County.
In a later email, Blair said the two “have carried the ‘WKU Spirit’ with them from the time they met on ‘the Hill’, raised their children one a WKU graduate and hosted WKU Alumni events around the country. … George has also been a volunteer leader as a past member of the WKU Foundation Board and now the Board of Regents. You will not meet two finer representatives of WKU.”
Since joining New York Life in 2001, Nichols has held various leadership positions, according to a news release from the company.
Going forward, Nichols sees challenges in the low amount of state funding for higher education, student recruitment and college affordability. Ultimately, Nichols said universities must remember to serve their students and ensure there’s opportunity for all no matter their background.
“I want to make sure that that is available for as many people as possible,” he said.
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