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Warren Wilson College receives $1.5 million gift to support the humanities

Warren Wilson College has received a $1.5 million gift from Helmar E. Nielsen of St. Petersburg, Florida, to galvanize how students engage with the significant ideas, questions, and challenges of society using perspectives from the Humanities.

Nielsen’s gift will establish a $1.4 million endowment to fund in perpetuity the Nielsen Professor of Ideas that Transform the World and the Nielsen Student Scholars. An additional $100,000 gift will jumpstart the program for Fall 2024 while the endowment is established. The recipient of the professorship will be a teacher and scholar who underscores the college’s commitment to transdisciplinary humanities. The Nielsen Professor will lead seminars and develop campus-wide programs focused on the questions of human meaning and agency in everyday life. The Nielsen Student Scholars will pursue undergraduate student research projects under the mentorship of the Nielsen Professor. 

“Helmar is a generous visionary with a deep understanding of the role liberal arts colleges and the humanities disciplines must play in addressing the timeless quest for human meaning as well as the issues of our times,” said Warren Wilson College President Dr. Damián J. Fernández. “His support of Warren Wilson is a testament to his confidence in our commitment to purpose-driven, hands-on education that brings together heart and mind for individual transformation in service to the common good.”

Nielsen is a retired executive, intellectual, gallerist, art collector, philanthropist and staunch advocate for the liberal arts. His steadfast support of liberal arts education reflects his belief in the liberal arts as a process of cognitive, moral, aesthetic and spiritual growth for students and faculty alike. He is dedicated to the vitality and excellence of liberal arts colleges.

“I have entrusted the Trustees of Warren Wilson College with these funds in the confident belief that they will remain true to the liberal arts tradition of Warren Wilson College,” Nielsen said. “I see this as producing graduates who know how to read, write, and think critically and to discern wisdom should she appear one day. The difference between what is unrealistic and unimportant and realistic and important is the substance that is missing from that discernment and is missing from much higher education. It is the substance of what becomes history, often surprisingly so.”

The College has named Dr. Todd May as the inaugural Nielsen Professor. May is a nationally renowned professor of philosophy who has taught and written for more than 30 years in the areas of ethics, political philosophy, and issues in the philosophy of life — meaningfulness in life, suffering, and death. He has organized and conducted workshops on issues such as anti-racism, LGBTQ rights, and other current social and political matters.

“I am honored to be chosen for the inaugural Nielsen Professorship. At this time in our country, when the humanities are under siege from particular quarters, it is more important than ever to develop avenues for discussion and consideration of our values, our history, our world, and our responsibilities,” May said.

In addition to his teaching, scholarship and advocacy,  May has served as a philosophical consultant for NBC’s hit comedy “The Good Place.” He read scripts, met with the writers, advised showrunner Mike Schur, and had a cameo in the last episode. His most recent work, Should We Go Extinct: A Philosophical Dilemma for our Unbearable Times will be published by Crown this summer. 

As the Nielsen Professor, May will oversee the process for the allocation of funds to student research projects. Recipients, called “Nielsen Student Scholars,” will receive a stipend for their work. The student projects will be immersive, comprehensive and rigorous. 

According to May, “Warren Wilson’s commitment to student growth has always been a hallmark of the college.  This gift will allow us to continue and deepen that commitment.” 


About Helmar Nielsen

Helmar, a graduate of Bucknell University, studied philosophy at Johns Hopkins University then earned a JD at Boston University. A lifelong philanthropist honored many times for his dedication to supporting education, he has made pledges to support the creation of the Helmar and Enole Nielsen Center for Visual Arts at and Nielsen Center for the Liberal Arts at Eckerd College. In addition to Warren Wilson College, he has established endowments at The Dublin School for Religious Studies, Bucknell University, Union Theological Seminary, and the Interdenominational Theological Center (a consortium of five predominantly African-American denominational Christian seminaries in Atlanta, Georgia, operating together as a professional graduate school of theology.) He makes yearly gifts for faculty development and has made an endowment gift at William Jewell College.

Nielsen was President of the Nielsen Gallery from 1963 to 1971. He created and patented the Nielsen aluminum picture frames through the company he founded in 1971, the Nielsen Moulding Design Corporation, where he served as President from 1971 to 1984. Nielsen also serves as President of Holderness Capital, and owns River Ridge Homes, Cardinal Tracking and Hansen Turbine. He has served as Chairman of the New Hampshire Housing Finance Corporation, and an officer of the Fund for Theological Education. He served 25 years as a Trustee of the Board of Union Theological Seminary in New York City, 25 years as a Trustee of the Board at the Interdenominational Theological Center, and 26 years as a Trustee on the Board at Eckerd College.