This article appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of Erikson on Children under the headline “Farewell, Dr. Meisels.” More from this issue

While visiting the Shanghai Children’s Welfare Institute, President Samuel J. Meisels paused, sat on a child-sized chair, and opened his arms wide to a one-year-old orphan watching the visiting Americans.

The boy quickly climbed into Meisels’s lap. “You could see that the two made an instant connection, even through the language and culture barrier,” says Fran Stott, Erikson’s Barbara T. Bowman Professor of Child Development and former dean.

She traveled with Meisels and Professor Jie-Qi Chen to China in 2006 to explore program opportunities for Erikson. “Sam simply has a way about him that young children respond to.”

Meisels soon will be making another journey, this one to the University of Nebraska. In June Meisels will become the founding executive director of the university’s new Buffett Early Childhood Institute, which was established with an endowment of more than $100 million thanks to a generous gift from philanthropist Susie Buffett and support from university, private, and federal sources.

He leaves after more than 11 years as Erikson’s president, a tenure matching the longest-serving Erikson leader, founder Maria Piers (1966–1977).

Under Meisels’s leadership, Erikson grew from a highly respected institution to a robust engine of research, community partnerships, and graduate programs, all of which are continually evolving to meet the needs of the early childhood field. Meisels is quick to credit the faculty and staff’s hard work for Erikson’s successes.

“A person in a job like mine does very little by himself,” says Meisels. “I’ve been fortunate to work with terrific people and to build on the strong history of accomplishment that already existed when I became president.”

Energy, enthusiasm, and ideas

When Meisels arrived at Erikson in January 2002 from the University of Michigan, he was widely acknowledged as the leading national authority on assessing young children.

“I was ready for a new challenge, but I wasn’t interested in just being a college president. I was interested in being the president of Erikson Institute,” says Meisels. “Erikson was poised to increase its impact and national profile, and I wanted to help move the Institute with all its strengths forward.”

Leading up to his becoming president, Meisels got to know Erikson well, as he consulted on faculty research for a year. Once settled in Chicago, he moved quickly to deepen Erikson’s relationships with Chicago’s civic, foundation, and higher education leaders.

“Sam was on everyone’s calendar,” says Stott. “It was exciting to see how Sam’s connections, enthusiasm, energy, and big ideas contributed greatly to our growth in so many different ways. At the same time, he was still able to conduct and present his own research around the country.”

Perhaps Meisels’s most visible accomplishment is Erikson’s state-of-the-art campus in Chicago’s River North neighborhood — the first campus Erikson has ever owned.

Sitting at a high-traffic intersection, the glass-faced campus with its striking imagery of young children makes a clear statement about the importance of early childhood and the work Erikson does. The custom-built facility also was critical to Erikson’s growth as it has enabled the Institute to serve more children, families, and early childhood professionals.

Meisels himself considers expanding the graduate programs while maintaining Erikson’s high standards to be one of his proudest accomplishments. During his tenure, Erikson’s student body more than doubled, growing from 120 to 300 graduate students in campus-based and online programs. Each fall, Meisels and his wife, Alice, look forward to meeting new and current students at a party held at their home.

“Without a doubt, it’s the best night of the year for us. We love seeing how passionate the students are about working with children and families and hearing the enthusiasm with which they are approaching the challenging Erikson course work,” says Meisels. “It’s for them, our alumni, and the early childhood field that Erikson has maintained its commitment to offering the best degree programs in early childhood.”

Meisels is also proud of his work in support of the entrepreneurial interests of Erikson’s faculty and staff. Accomplishments under his leadership include:

  • More than doubling funding for applied research and community-based projects. These initiatives have improved life for children and families throughout Chicago and invigorated Erikson’s graduate programs and faculty.
  • Greatly expanding partnerships with Chicago Public Schools teachers, administration, and students through the New Schools Project, Early Math Collaborative, and Herr Research Center for Children and Social Policy.
  • Establishing the Center for Children and Families, which over the past three years has provided comprehensive assessment and counseling to more than 1,300 Chicago-area families, including many at-risk children and families in distress.
  • Establishing the TEC Center (Technology in Early Childhood) to empower early childhood educators to make informed decisions about the appropriate use of technology in the classroom and other early childhood settings.
  • Raising more than $50 million during a successful five-year fundraising campaign for the new campus, an endowed chair, fellowships, and special programs.
  • Increasing the endowment by nearly 100% and completing two five-year strategic plans that provided direction as Erikson increased its visibility and influence on the early childhood field.

“Sam saw the beauty of what Erikson was and as president preserved the Institute’s unique identity as a practitioner-focused institution while growing it,” says Stott.

Recognized by the early childhood field and funders

Leaders outside of Erikson also recognize the impact of Meisels’s leadership.

“He has done an incredible job of elevating Erikson’s reputation locally and nationally, and ensuring that Erikson’s work was relevant to children and families who are the most often marginalized,” says Maria Whelan, president and CEO of Illinois Action for Children. Erikson has partnered with Whelan’s organization over the years to train agency staff and evaluate key programs focused on serving very high-need children and their families. “I would describe him as an impatient gentleman. Polite, but on a mission to make a difference.”

Sara Slaughter, director of the education program at the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, agrees that Meisels is driven to effect change.

“Sam is known as a national expert on the assessment of young children and Erikson’s longtime leader, but his greatest legacy will be his dogged insistence on doing what is best for children — no matter how difficult — and his ability to remain a true friend and trusted colleague even after heated debate,” she says.

Phyllis Glink, executive director of the Irving Harris Foundation, focuses on Meisels’s impact on children and families in Illinois.

“Illinois’s early childhood community has relied on Sam’s leadership during the last 11 years to help build the systems and spark the reforms needed to support young children, especially those at risk or in need,” she says. “At the same time, Erikson has thrived under Sam and built on [Erikson cofounder] Irving Harris’s vision of helping give children the best possible start in life.”

The five Erikson board chairs during Meisels’s presidency also reflected on his accomplishments. Read what the chairs have to say

Farewell, but not goodbye

With some bittersweet emotions, Meisels will preside over his 12th and final Erikson commencement ceremony in May, a few short weeks before he leaves to head the Buffett Early Childhood Institute.

“The most important professional experience of my life was being a kindergarten teacher. Second was being president of Erikson Institute,” says Meisels. “Everything else pales in comparison to it. I will always be an advocate for Erikson, boasting to everyone how great it is.”