Robert S. Nelsen, who became Sacramento State’s eighth permanent president on July 1, 2015, grew up poor on the Montana cattle ranch that his father worked three jobs to buy for the family.
Nelsen made his first visit to Sacramento State in spring 2015. He and his wife, Jody, fell in love with the campus, and he knew this is where he wanted to be.
“You could say it was because of the trees, but it really wasn’t. It was seeing the students and the possibilities, seeing the diversity. This is the seventh-most diverse university west of the Mississippi. Seeing so many Latino students warmed my heart, because I’m coming from a place that’s 89 percent Hispanic,” says Nelsen, who is fluent in Spanish (and reads French). “Seeing the Asian American students. Seeing the African American students. Seeing the Caucasian students. Seeing them mingle together – and knowing what that diversity could do. Diversity makes us stronger, and I see the chance here to create true leaders."
At Sacramento State, Nelsen will work to improve graduation and retention rates, and reduce students’ time to degree. "And,” he says, “I love our mission statement, which is: 'As California's capital university, we transform lives by preparing students for leadership, service, and success.' "
Robert Steven Nelsen was born on Jan. 21, 1952, in Brigham City, Utah, to Geri and Bob Nelsen. His father always dreamed of owning a ranch in Montana and so, to make the down payment, he raised dairy cows on their Utah farm and delivered milk to the local schools before going to his job as a sheet-metal worker. All three Nelsen boys – Mike, Randy, and Robert – worked cattle on the family’s ranch.
Nelsen, who is the first in his family to attend college, earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science from BYU. During his freshman year, he worked as a janitor, cleaning campus buildings, and had a side job painting curbside street addresses. Later, he took a job managing the Western wear department at an Orem, Utah, sporting goods store.
After finishing graduate school in 1979, Nelsen was accepted at the University of Chicago’s John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought, where students read whatever their professor is reading and usually at the professor’s home. After earning his doctorate in 1989, he got a job as a lecturer at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Nelsen, who has a finished novel, was doing a lot of writing at the time. “I was in the middle of the minimalist phase when minimalism was hot,” he says, “and I was published in some major, cutting-edge journals, and got a good reputation. That’s how I got the job at the University of Texas-Dallas in 1990.”
There, he founded the creative writing program, was a professor of Literary and Aesthetic Studies, and served as vice provost. In 2008, Jody Nelsen, who earned her master of business administration from UT-Dallas, was hired as the vice president of Business Affairs at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. Nelsen followed his wife to A&M-CC, where he was a professor of English and the associate vice president for Academic Affairs.
A year later, Nelsen was named president of the University of Texas-Pan American. In less than five years under his leadership, the total enrollment and six-year graduation rates increased, the school’s financial situation improved, and the community’s perception of UTPA went from a negative 47 percent to a positive 76 percent, thanks to aggressive community engagement and marketing initiatives. In 2014, UTPA was named College of the Year by the National Hispanic Institute.
UTPA had a high percentage of low-income students, so Nelsen pushed for the creation of a food bank for the students, and he and his wife created an emergency fund in the name of their son, Seth.
As UTPA’s first lady, Jody Nelsen devoted herself to causes such as the plight of abused women and the issue of hunger. She was board president of the Food Bank of the Rio Grande Valley, and is looking forward to getting involved in charitable causes as Sacramento State’s first lady.
Nelsen essentially worked himself out of his presidency at UTPA when he and other university officials discovered a loophole in the Texas constitution that allowed eligible institutions in the UT and A&M systems the access to millions of dollars in a public endowment. In order to receive the funding, UTPA and UT-Brownsville merged to create the new University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley, with a School of Medicine.
At Sacramento State, Nelsen is leading the effort to raise private funds for both a new science building and an events center, as well as to raise money to renovate older buildings. The Nelsens host small dinner parties for donors at their home and plan to host large fundraisers at the University's Julia Morgan House.
He is committed to ensuring that Sacramento State’s students graduate with less debt and have jobs waiting when they finish school. He wants them to become lifelong learners and critical thinkers. And he has big dreams for Sacramento State itself.