Trashed art supplies — even that can draw the attention of Mary E. Nelson, general counsel of St. Louis Community College. Here’s why: The art departments on campus use a hodgepodge of materials in their creations, she explained. Some end up in campus dumpsters. If a regulatory agency shows up to inspect the school’s disposal of hazardous waste, there may be a liability issue if it’s not done correctly.
“One thing I think people don’t recognize is that colleges and universities are some of the most regulated industries that you can imagine,” said Nelson. And it’s not just the academics.
The six different campuses of SLCC are like cities within a city, she said. There are roads. There is real estate. There are college police officers. There are financial-aid issues, tax issues, employment issues (among the 4,000 employees), even First Amendment, academic-freedom issues.
“Risk mitigation is the biggest part of the job,” she said. “You need to very quickly get an understanding: ‘How long will this bomb tick before it explodes? Or is this really a bomb? Maybe it just looks like a bomb.’ You’re constantly assessing and analyzing situations.”
On one hand, she was prepared for all of this variety: From 2010-2014, Nelson served on Missouri’s Administrative Hearing Commission, which has jurisdiction over more than 100 spheres of activity, from state tax and professional licensing to railroads, special education and Medicaid providers. But after applying for the GC position at the college on a lark (her mother had worked there) and coming onboard, she had to navigate an unfamiliar regulatory thicket — sometimes on the fly.
“When you’re GC, you don’t get these neat, packaged, well-briefed fact situations presented. You’re thrown in there and people tell you, ‘This is happening and that’s happening and this is happening over on that campus’ — and you have to figure out how to counsel the client on the risk.”
Throughout her career, Nelson has often found herself at the center of action — and oftentimes, inside the corridors of power. In 2009 and 2010, she served as Gov. Jay Nixon’s director of boards and commissions, finding and recommending qualified candidates for state government bodies. Before that, she served as general counsel and legislative director for Steve Gaw, former speaker of the Missouri House of Representatives. And before that, she was the general counsel of the St. Louis Development Corporation — a role in which she left her mark on the city quite literally.
“I don’t have kids,” she said, “but I can point to buildings in the City of St. Louis that I had a hand in developing.”
Yet Nelson — a Princeton University alum and self-described “policy nerd” — has done some of her proudest and most memorable work behind the scenes. Sometimes that meant pulling an all-nighter in a tiny office in the state capitol, poring over a lobbyist’s proposed bill. Other times she found herself alone across a conference table from a team of gambling-company lawyers to hammer out a 200-page agreement for riverboat casinos.
“That’s not the sexy work, but it’s doing the little tedious stuff — that’s the essence of public service.”
On occasion, she gets to escape — these days, to the mountains, her new favorite getaway. Having already explored the Canadian Rockies by train, she has booked an Alaskan cruise this summer.
Otherwise, you can find her at home watching her two favorite sports — college wrestling and English Premier League soccer — or cooking brunch for people close to her. She does not measure anything when she cooks; rather, she manages the various ingredients intuitively.
“You feel your way through it,” she said. “That has always gotten me great results.”