Robert S. Nelsen, the former president of University of Texas-Pan American, was named Sacramento State’s next president Wednesday by California State University trustees in Long Beach.
Nelsen served as president of the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg for four years, during which he helped establish the University of Texas-Rio Grand Valley, which merged UTPA and the University of Texas at Brownsville.
He will begin at California State University, Sacramento, in July, replacing Alexander Gonzalez, 69, who is retiring after leading the university since 2003.
Nelsen’s administrative experience also includes posts at Texas A&M and the University of Texas at Dallas. He began his career as a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“I’m extremely excited at the opportunity of being at Sacramento State,” Nelsen said Wednesday, adding that he and his wife had visited recently on a “secret shopper trip.”
He said he will work to improve graduation rates, increase online courses and reduce the need for remedial classes at Sacramento State.
Nelsen eliminated bottlenecks at UTPA by using technology to better track classes that students were required to take; by putting degree plans online so students knew exactly what classes they needed for graduation; and by reworking classes that many students withdrew from or failed.
UTPA reduced the number of remedial classes by working with K-12 superintendents and community college presidents to better prepare students for the university, Nelsen said.
“I am unabashedly focused on student access and student success,” he told reporters.
Nelsen said students have changed and are now mobile, digital learners. He signaled that he would re-emphasize technology and digital learning at Sacramento State.
“If we teach our students the same way we taught yesterday’s students, we rob them of their future,” he said. “Colleges are entrepreneurial in what we are doing and we will be using technology to better educate our students.”
He said he would continue much of Alexander’s work, including raising money to add campus amenities. He plans to talk to state legislators and potential donors to raise money for a long-planned science building. Students can help by telling their stories, he said.
Nelsen, who said he was recruited to apply for the job, will earn $303,850 annually, with an additional $60,000 annual housing allowance – the same amount as Gonzalez, according to university officials. The compensation package is pending board approval.
Sacramento State serves 29,000 students on its 300-acre campus. It has graduated more than 200,000 people, including one in every 22 Sacramento-area residents, according to the university.
Nelsen said he will invite the faculty senate and student government to take part in the budget process and hold town forums to improve communication at the campus. “Transparency is crucial in a university,” he said. “I believe you have to communicate and have to talk all the time. It’s best to overly communicate.”
Kevin Wehr, president of the Sacramento chapter of the California Faculty Association, said he isn’t familiar with Nelsen but looks forward to a change in leadership. “I look forward to developing a collaborative and collegial relationship,” he said Wednesday.
Nelsen agreed with faculty members who said at Wednesday’s CSU’s board meeting that professors deserve more pay. He said he would like to add tenure-track positions and find new revenue streams to pay for more department chairs and professorships.
“The days of depending on unlimited tuition increases or unlimited revenue from the state ... those days are gone,” he said.
Nelsen said he has no experience working in the California education system. “I’ve got a lot to learn about California, and it will be a new experience, but I have a lot of skills that will transfer seamlessly into the university.”
Nelsen said he was raised on a cattle ranch in Montana and graduated from Brigham Young University in Utah with a master’s degree in political science. He also obtained a doctorate from the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought.
“I’d be shoeing horses today, but I had the opportunity to have a great education,” he said.
Call The Bee’s Diana Lambert, (916) 321-1090. Follow her on Twitter @dianalambert.
Robert S. Nelsen
Education: Doctorate, University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, 1989; master’s degree, political science, Brigham Young University, 1979; bachelor’s degree, Brigham Young University, 1978.
Experience: Special adviser, University of Texas system, 2014-present; president, University of Texas-Pan American, 2010-14; associate vice president for academic affairs, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, 2008-09; vice provost, associate provost and professor, University of Texas at Dallas, 1990-2008.