PROVO, Utah — Dr. Richard P. Nielsen, founding president and CEO of Rocky Mountain University of Health Professions (RMU), knows quite a bit about scaling seemingly insurmountable summits and tackling tough terrain. In a span of 14 years, he conquered Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa a staggering eight times.
“Every time I climbed that mountain, I said, ‘It’s the hardest thing I’ve done in my life.’ So I knew every time I was going to do it again, it would continue to be the hardest thing. But there’s so much you can learn,” he said.
That level of dogged determination was crucial for Nielsen and his business partner, Dr. Mike Skurja, as they ventured into higher education. They took all they learned in clinical electrophysiology during their United States Navy Medical Service Corps service and, upon retirement, started in June 1998 what would become RMU in Provo. They aimed to educate master clinicians. Nielsen and Skurja also co-founded the Noorda College of Osteopathic Medicine.
The territory was entirely new, so Nielsen hearkened back to the lessons he learned traversing Africa’s highest peak to create a new landscape for post-graduate students in the medical field. “It’s been a brutal journey getting over all the hurdles,” Nielsen said. “But Mike and I are pretty tenacious, and we made a decision way back then, saying, ‘If we’re going to do this, we have to be all in.’”
Nielsen’s commitment to being “all in” helped take RMU to amazing heights. The University gained accreditation from the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU) in 2010, which was reaffirmed in 2020. Thousands of graduates have earned graduate certificates, master’s and doctoral degrees and their white coats and gone on to successful careers.
Nielsen announced Monday that he will step down as the institution’s president on December 31, 2022.
Nielsen’s wife, Jodi Nielsen, who has been crucially supportive, summited Kilimanjaro as well. She says there are distinct similarities in what they’ve experienced at the University.
“Along the journey at RMU, there were so many vistas that opened our eyes to what’s possible. I distinctly remember white coat ceremonies, commencement exercises, and new programs receiving programmatic accreditation, and it was surreal,” Jodi Nielsen said. “Every time we hit a milestone, it was a new perspective of wondering what else is possible.”
While a search is underway for Nielsen’s successor as president, the couple plans to continue their nonprofit work in Africa. They’ll of course have Kilimanjaro looming nearby, a constant reminder of the hard work and thrilling vistas they experienced at Rocky Mountain University.
“The peak of that mountain is called Uhuru Peak. Uhuru in Swahili means ‘freedom.’ So when you walk off that mountain, there’s a freedom you experience. I believe the degrees and experience offered at Rocky Mountain University provide freedom as well, and I’m so proud of all our students have accomplished,” Dr. Nielsen said.