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A country boy’s odyssey: Nelsen takes over Sacramento State

Robert Nelsen, the new president of California State University, Sacramento. (Photo: Sacramento State)

As a boy growing up impoverished on a Montana ranch, Robert Nelsen did not expect to go to college. Years later, he is the eighth president of California State University, Sacramento.

Nelsen, 63, former president of the University of Texas-Pan American, officially took over as the chief executive officer of the 30,000-student campus in July.

Nelsen, who said he was recruited to apply for the job, will be paid $303,850 annually, with an additional $60,000 annual housing allowance – the same amount as his predecessor, Alexander Gonzalez, according to university officials.

Nelsen almost didn’t get to college. “I should be shoeing horses right now,” he says.

Nelsen was paid about the same in Texas, where he was the lowest-paid of the UT presidents, according to the Daily Texan,

Gonzalez, 69, retired in June after 12 years as CSUS president.

CSU Trustee Steve Glazer, a newly elected state senator and chair of the Sacramento State Presidential Search Committee, says Nelsen was picked because “he has extensive experience leading a large, diverse university and a long history of always putting students first.”

He has kept his first W-2 and proudly displays it on his desk at CSUS to show to students.

“Dr. Robert Nelsen is an accomplished and visionary leader who will successfully build on the foundation President Gonzalez has established at Sacramento State,” Glazer said in a press release.

Nelsen almost didn’t get to college. “I should be shoeing horses right now,” he says.

Nelsen says he owes his career to his high school English teacher who encouraged him to fill out a college application, even though he had no plans to continue his education.

Nelsen earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science at Brigham Young University in 1979 and became the first member of his family to earn a college degree.

Nelsen says he chose BYU because his parents were Mormon. Nelsen did not disclose any religious affiliation.

Nelsen said in an interview that while growing up, each year he owned two shirts and two pairs of pants, courtesy of his grandparents. He tended cattle on his family’s ranch and did chores at neighboring ranches.

What stood out to Nelsen about CSUS, he says, is the percentage of students awarded Federal Pell Grants, based on financial need.

During his freshman year at BYU, Nelsen worked as a janitor and a curbside street address painter. He has kept his first W-2 and proudly displays it on his desk at CSUS to show to students.

Later, Nelsen attended the University of Chicago, where he obtained a doctorate in Committee on Social Thought, studying philosophy, literature and modern political theory.

From 1989, Nelsen taught English at the University of Illinois and again in 1990 at the University of Texas-Dallas, where he later served as the Associate and Vice Provost.

In 2008, Nelsen moved to Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi and served as associate vice president for academic affairs.

In 2010, Nelsen became the eighth president of University of Texas- Pan American in Edinburg, in the southern-most part of the state.

Nelsen says that since 2001, the university did not get any new buildings and the science program did not have any labs. Nelsen says he wanted the Rio Grande Valley, one of the poorest regions in the nation, to prosper.

Nelsen began advocating and fundraising, reports the UTPA administration and his official resume. Ultimately, the Board of Regents allocated about $200 million in funds to aid the school.

In 2013, UT-Pan American merged with UT-Brownsville to create UT-Rio Grande Valley, with a medical school and  $348 million of new buildings and laboratories. The Texas Tribune reports that Nelsen was a finalist for the presidency of the new campus, but the job went to Guy Bailey, former president of the University of Alabama

“I worked myself out of the job… I was looking for a place to continue the work I was doing there,” says Nelsen who became a special adviser to the University of Texas administration on South Texas issues.

CSUS reports it needs to increase their 4-year transfer graduation rate to 68 percent and the first-year freshman 6-year graduation rate to 51 percent.

In the interview, Nelsen said had several other employment opportunities lined up after his departure from Texas, although he declined to identify them. Nelsen says his first choice was CSUS.

Nelsen’s reason? The students.

What stood out to Nelsen about CSUS, he says, is the percentage of students awarded Federal Pell Grants, based on financial need.

On average, half of CSU students receive Pell Grants. After UTPA and UT-Brownsville merged, the new school, UT-Rio Grande Valley, reports that 61 percent of its students received Pell Grants in 2014.

Nelsen says the CSUS students “are going to be very, very successful but they need some help.”

The CSU Chancellor’s Office reports that a Graduation Initiative has been set in place to graduate more students. As of now, the CSU graduates just over 50 percent of its students in 6 years.

To achieve a better graduation rate for the CSU system, CSUS reports it needs to increase their 4-year transfer graduation rate to 68 percent and the first-year freshman 6-year graduation rate to 51 percent.

The Office of Institutional Research and Effectiveness reports that UTPA’s 6-year graduation rate was at 42.7 percent in 2014.

Yajayra Gonzalez, the CSUS Associated Student Government president who met Nelsen in July said she was excited the new president.

“After hearing him give his speech, I knew then that we were going to get along just great. He is very student oriented, and I am confident that he will put the students first,” Gonzalez says.

Gonzalez told Nelsen that many students feel there is a lack of communication between the administration and the students during student government elections, and Gonzalez felt that a “town hall” meeting would aid in the process for next year.

Gonzalez says Nelsen was available to host the meeting and answered student’s questions thoroughly.

Nelsen wants to increase the number of internships available for students. He has met with the Sacramento Metro Chambers to open up business-oriented internships.

“This leads to careers,” Nelsen says.

Nelsen’s other plans include to increase salaries for faculty and staff “based upon equity because some faculty have been here longer and get paid less, that’s not appropriate.”

Nelsen said in an interview, he plans to talk to legislators and private donors to increase pay.

Nelsen says that he feels close to students because he knows what it is like face obstacles like poverty while in school. “I know what  an education means,” he says.

Ed’s Note: Jessica Hice is a reporter with Capitol News, a project of the University of California Center Public-Affairs Journalism Program.


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