The next president of California State University, Sacramento, comes to the Central Valley from the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, where he helped launch the transformation of a state university branch into an ambitious bilingual campus serving the entire border region.
That makes Robert Nelsen an intriguing choice indeed by CSU trustees, who announced his appointment Wednesday. He starts in July and will succeed Alexander Gonzalez, who is retiring after nearly 12 years in office.
From 2010 to 2014, Nelsen served as president of the University of Texas-Pan American, the fifth largest campus in that system with a student body of similar size and diversity to Sacramento State.
His signature achievement was to win support from UT regents and that state’s Legislature for the new University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, which will enroll its first students this fall. It combines UT-Pan American and UT-Brownsville, includes its own medical school and is branding itself as “America’s next great university.”
He grew up in Montana, worked his way through Brigham Young University and obtained a doctorate at the University of Chicago. He has spent his entire academic career in Texas, starting the creative writing program at the University of Texas at Dallas, before becoming an administrator there and at Texas A&M University’s campus in Corpus Christi.
At this early juncture, one way to judge his hiring is whether Nelsen meets the criteria set out by CSU system Chancellor Timothy White, who told The Sacramento Bee editorial board in January that he was looking for someone focused on students, committed to work with regional leaders and knowledgeable about California politics.
Nelsen appears to check the first two boxes. In a conference call with reporters, he said he’s “unabashedly focused” on student success, access and affordability. He pledged to hold town halls, regularly meet business leaders and reach out throughout the six-county region. And he said he’s on board with Mayor Kevin Johnson’s “Sacramento 3.0” vision for the city to become an innovation hub.
But like many newcomers to our state, Nelsen acknowledges he has a lot to learn about California.
He does already seem to have an appreciation for the ongoing debate over student tuition and state support for public higher education. Nelsen suggested he would take a hands-on role in securing more federal grants and raising money for endowed professorships.
He also has some significant decisions on his plate. For instance, Sacramento State is working with Sierra College and the developers of Placer Ranch to resurrect plans for a satellite campus in Placer County. Nelsen called it “a long-term goal.”
The university claims one in 22 residents of the Sacramento area among its 200,000-plus alumni. For our region to prosper, Sacramento State must continue producing skilled graduates to fill a broad range of occupations.
Nelsen has a big job ahead of him. Regional leaders need to welcome him and help him succeed.