Robert S. Nelsen starts Wednesday as Sacramento State’s new president with several goals that sound simple but really aren’t.
He must introduce himself quickly to a campus that played no role in hiring him thanks to a secretive selection process that chose the 63-year-old former creative writing professor and western clothes salesman – an unorthodox pick to succeed Alexander Gonzalez.
He must improve what he considers an “abominable” record of getting students to their degrees in four years.
He must work with an often cranky professors union, though he has no previous experience negotiating with unionized faculty.
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He must make friends with the state Legislature as no Sac State president has before.
He must raise money in a much more robust way from the abundant but largely disconnected alumni spread across the Sacramento region.
He needs to get a new science building going to ease a bottleneck of students needing lab space.
But most of all, Nelsen has to raise the profile of Sacramento State even higher while getting faculty, students and the community to embrace the essence of what Sacramento’s university does best: It educates Sacramento’s workforce. It creates community leaders such as Sacramento Police Chief Sam Somers Jr., Sacramento City Councilman Eric Guerra, former Sacramento County District Attorney Jan Scully and Cheryl Dell, publisher and president of The Sacramento Bee.
Lester Holt, the anchor of NBC Nightly News, spoke recently of how Sacramento State set him on his path to a historic career as an African American news anchor for a major network. Because of its affordability compared to other four-year schools, Sac State offers humble people chances to lift themselves out of family poverty – including thousands of Latino and Asian students.
What Nelsen hopes to do is to get “Hornet Nation” to be proud of that, to celebrate its strengths as opposed to yearning for Sac State to be more like UC Davis or some other university.
“Hardcore research is important. We need undergraduate research, but really it’s about the students,” Nelsen said. “This institution is dedicated to teaching. I’m more interested in working with students. ... It’s not about being a tier-one research university.”
To be blunt, many in the campus community expected a woman of color to lead Sac State after 12 years of Gonzalez at the helm. The ethnic diversity on campus, and in greater Sacramento, seemed to demand it.
Instead, Nelsen emerged after last working in southern Texas. And boy, Sacramento ain’t southern Texas, and Nelsen ain’t a woman of color. He is the son of Mormon cattle ranchers in Montana.
People don’t embrace in stiff-and-starched Sacramento as they do Edinburg, Texas. Nelsen ran the University of Texas-Pan American in the Rio Grande Valley, where Mexican culture seeps across the border region and into El Norte. That culture moves people to routinely wrap their arms around each other when saying hello or goodbye – even in business and educational circles.
“Un abrazo,” Nelsen said, using the Spanish word for hug. “One of the hardest things I have to learn (in Sacramento) is not to hug people.”
Nelsen still wears his boots in Sacramento, a custom that may endure given that he’s from Big Sky country. But now he’s working at extending his hand when meeting people, as opposed to his preferred embrace. He sports a salt-and-pepper goatee, a shaved head and a completely open heart.
In south Texas, working with impoverished Mexican American students, Nelsen found kinship with families who desperately wanted their kids to succeed – but who weren’t educated in their own language, let alone in English.
Nelsen saw it as his job to bridge the gap. He structured his university to help kids arriving to college with remedial skills. While in Texas, he witnessed many a Mexican mom cry when talking about her educational dreams for her child.
Nelsen cried along with them. “I cry,” he said misting up over lunch on Monday. “It didn’t bother people.”
He was moved by their devotion to their kids. And he had his own reasons to weep. He experienced something no parent should. In 2001, Nelsen’s 25-year-old son Seth committed suicide.
“My wife Jody and I have been married for 40 years, and people always ask us if we have children,” he said. “We lost our son to suicide, and now I tell people I have 29,000 kids. I want to make a difference in kids’ lives.”
The new Sac State president is not a large man, but sitting with him, you begin to understand why he appeared to be the hand-picked selection of California State University Chancellor Timothy White.
Nelsen is a disarming presence walking onto an often-political campus, one where my own spouse works. He is a former faculty senate leader from his days as a Northwestern professor, a background many hope will make him simpatico with Sacramento’s faculty.
He has the passion to improve the lot of Latino students, one of Sacramento State’s great missions. But unlike Gonzalez, Nelsen can advocate for those students without being accused of playing favorites.
The now-departed Gonzalez did much to raise the profile of Sac State in the community, and he remade the look of a campus badly needing a face-lift. He might have done more had most of his final years not been consumed by dealing with severe cutbacks and tuition hikes, vestiges of the economic meltdown.
Nelsen now hopes to turn better economic times into getting Sacramento State alumni to donate in far greater numbers to the university. He promises to be an active host of events that build pride and unity. He is eager to sit down with anyone and everyone. Part of that is his passion for education.
That will mean reaching out to Sacramento’s high schools, which too often send unprepared kids to Sac State – contributing to a four-year graduation rate that is barely at 9 percent. Only 42 percent of students graduate in six years, a number Nelsen finds unacceptable.
“We have to have a mindset we are going to get students through more quickly,” he said. “I’ve met our kids. They are smart, but ... I was shocked when I saw our (graduation) numbers. We can do better.”