Sac State president Nelsen outlines plans to boost graduation rates, add classes

Sacramento State President Robert Nelsen, with the Hornets mascot by his side, chants, “Sac State is No. 1. Stingers up!” following his first annual address to students and facultyThursday.
Sacramento State President Robert Nelsen, with the Hornets mascot by his side, chants, “Sac State is No. 1. Stingers up!” following his first annual address to students and facultyThursday.

Sacramento State President Robert Nelsen drew rousing applause and a standing ovation Thursday for an aggressive nine-step plan that would increase teacher pay, add classes and offer financial incentives to students for on-time graduation.

The president, who took the helm of the university in July, unveiled the plan during his Fall Address on Thursday.

Nelsen actually earned two standing ovations – the first when he climbed the steps to the podium. It was clear that the crowd of faculty, staff and students is warming to the new president, who walks around the campus greeting employees and taking selfies with students.

Professor Cecil Canton said the ovations were as much about the fact people are happy for change, as it is that they like the new president. “His predecessors never walked the campus,” he said. “Clearly, it’s a new day.”

Before starting his address, Nelsen took a few minutes to laud California State University, Sacramento, senior Anthony Sadler, who is being heralded internationally as a hero after helping to disarm a suspected terrorist on a high-speed train in Europe last week.

“The shooter had eight magazines filled with bullets – there is no telling how many people would have been killed if it weren’t for the actions of Anthony and his friends,” said Nelsen. Sadler, 23, who returned to Sacramento earlier this week, did not make an appearance at the event. The school announced Thursday that it had established a fund to pay for the rest of Sadler’s education at Sacramento State,

Nelsen started his speech by announcing that the university has enrolled a record number of students this fall – 30,023.

The energy in the room intensified as Nelsen outlined his nine-step plan and how the university would spend its $286.6 million budget for the 2015-16 school year. New expenditures include $1 million for equity raises; $1 million to add classes; $1.36 million to hire tenure-track faculty; $1 million to hire lecturers; $1.56 million for initiatives that would help students graduate sooner; and $16.5 million for capital projects including deferred maintenance.

Nelsen’s first priority is to improve Sacramento State’s 9 percent four-year graduation rate. He plans to do that by hiring a “graduation czar” to coordinate efforts to increase graduation rates; increasing the number of popular classes to eliminate bottlenecks; adding online courses; and offering more classes in the summer.

“There can be no more excuses. You, especially the students, have my word,” he said.

Nelsen said the university can help reduce remediation rates for local students by providing curriculum to the region’s K-12 schools. Currently, 56 percent of the students who enroll at Sacramento State must take remedial classes.

The plan also included steps to improve the retention rate at the campus, which typically losses 606 members of each class between their freshman and senior year.

“We will do it together,” he said. “I need all of you to help me find solutions.”

Despite the enthusiasm exhibited during the speech, some faculty members still expressed doubt that Nelsen could achieve the goals he outlined. Part-time lecturer and California Faculty Association board member Nicki Mehta called the plan “overzealous” and said it lacked specifics. She said she hopes Nelsen succeeds, however.

“He has some energy and enthusiasm,” Mehta said. “You always have to give the benefit of the doubt.”

Canton also expressed concerns that the president is “overpromising,” although he said he is is “very hopeful.”

“I like the fact he has vision,” Canton said.

Students attending the program said the president is paying attention to their needs. They are especially excited about a plan to pay $500 toward each student’s tuition if they completed 15 units their previous semester.

“This president is doing a lot of good listening to students,” said Jason Lagao, a senior.

Diana Lambert: 916-321-1090, @dianalambert

Related stories from Sacramento Bee