‘We want to be the capital’s university’

In this short video, President Robert S. Nelsen introduces himself to the University community and the capital region – and pledges that together, "We are going to do great things."

In the saddle and on a mission: Meet President Robert S. Nelsen

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. They had horses but could afford only one saddle, so young Robert worked cattle bareback – until a kind family friend showed up with the gift of Calamity Jane’s saddle.

That saddle is now the centerpiece of Nelsen’s office at Sacramento State – and a symbol of his commitment to students. 

“I keep it here for three reasons,” Nelsen says. “It breaks the ice when someone comes into the president’s office, and I don’t want to be (perceived as) as a stodgy president. More importantly, it reminds me of the students and the struggles they have. It’s a reminder that we succeed because of the kindness of others, and we have the responsibility to give back.”

Nelsen, a born storyteller (and published writer), loves to share the legend of the well-worn brown saddle:

“Shorty Oliver, who died when he was 93, came over one day on his tractor and brought me that saddle. When he was 16, he ran away from Montana and joined a Wild West show as a bottle washer and cook. Calamity Jane was the sharpshooter in the show. She got very drunk one night, took off all of her clothes and rode through the camp on that saddle. (Shorty) took off his apron and wrapped it around her and put her to bed. The next day, she gave him the saddle,” Nelsen says.

“Now, I can’t prove that it’s her saddle, but her biography talks about her getting drunk and riding through the camp naked. Shorty told me the story over 50 years ago, so he was telling the truth (about that).”

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 15th-most diverse university in the West. 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.' "

From hardscrabble life to college degrees

Nelsen grew up as a cowboy and still dresses the part when he’s not in his presidential business suits. He favors Tony Lama boots, with a pair of shiny black Luccheses for dressier occasions. He likes his Wranglers properly starched. His cowboy hat is black felt, handmade in Ruidoso, N.M. He brought his red pickup with him from Texas, although he’s thinking about trading it in for something more urban with four-wheel drive so that he and his wife can make it up to Tahoe during the winter. He likes country music but generally listens to news stations on the radio. His idea of relaxation is pulling weeds.

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. Finally, Bob Nelsen had enough money for a down payment on 1,000 acres in southwestern Montana. Their house was built around an 1860 Pony Express post.

The Nelsens went on to raise beef cattle, but their herd was too small to support the family, so Geri Nelsen cleaned houses for wealthy ranchers, waited tables at a local café, and then got a job at the McAllister, Mont., post office. All three Nelsen boys – Mike, Randy, and Robert – worked cattle on the family’s ranch. Bob Nelsen farmed young Robert out to do chores at a neighboring ranch, as well. 

“We would put all of the money we made out on the kitchen table, and that’s how we’d buy food,” Nelsen says. “We were incredibly poor. My grandparents brought us canned food and would bring us boys each two shirts and a pair of pants, and that’s the clothing we’d have for the year.”

Nelsen found his escape from the hardscrabble life on the back of a horse – and in books. He may be the only male university president who has read the entire Nancy Drew mystery series. An older girl gave him her set because she knew he liked to read. He also read practically every book in his high school library, including the ponderous “History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” by Edward Gibbon.

He was a good student at Ennis High School but had no interest in higher education. He considered joining the professional rodeo circuit until one of his teachers intervened.

“I was smart,” Nelsen says, “and he was mad at me because I wasn’t applying myself. ... He made me fill out (college) application forms, and it was late (in the process), but because my parents were Mormon, the one school I could get into at the last moment was Brigham Young University.”

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. His first W-2 form, which he keeps in his desk at Sac State to share with students, shows that he earned $854.14 that year as a janitor and $188 as a curb-painter. 

Later, he took a job managing the Western wear department at an Orem, Utah, sporting goods store. He conspired to meet Jody Hawkins, the younger sister of one of his co-workers, by pricing the bell-bottom corduroys he knew she liked at just $1 a pair. Jody, a freshman at BYU, and her mother came into the store as he hoped she would, and Nelsen boldly asked her for a date.

“Everybody knew this was going to happen, and they were all up on the balcony, looking down. She couldn’t say no because everyone was watching,” he says.

Their first date was to see the 1941 Disney cartoon "Dumbo" at a drive-in, in Nelsen’s van with the fake fur-lined interior. On their second date, they stopped at an Albertson's grocery store, where Nelsen impulsively dropped a nickel in a gumball machine.

“And out comes a ‘diamond ring,’ so I get down on my knee and propose,” he says. “She is furious. She is so mad. People are surrounding us, and finally she has to say yes. We go out to the van, and she gives that ring back so fast. That’s how we got to know each other. 

"We’ve been together for 40 years.”

Writing, teaching – and leading

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.

“I lost my son to suicide,” Nelsen says. "I’m very upfront about that, and that’s why the students are ‘my’ kids. We set up an endowment for emergencies – maybe for a car breaking down, not having money for rent, maybe just for food, and I hope we can establish something like that at Sacramento State in my son’s name.”

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.

“I gave up my job for the students in the Valley,” says Nelsen, who chokes up for a moment. “I get emotional. Those kids (at UTPA) had not had a new building since 2001. They couldn’t take a science class and a lab in the same year. It was a travesty. I knew I was working myself out of a job, but there’s $348 million worth of construction taking place on (the new) campus."

Aiming to ‘transform lives’ as Sac State president

At Sacramento State, Nelsen plans to lead an effort to raise private funds for both a new science building and an events center, as well as raise money to renovate older buildings. The Nelsens plan to host small dinner parties for donors at their home and large fundraisers at the University's Julia Morgan House.

“As a university president, you really can transform lives,” Nelsen says. “Everything you do makes a difference. I get to help the faculty transform lives. I make it easier for them to do their job, and they do a great job. And every time I look out there and see a student walk by, I know the reason I come to work every day.”

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:

“This is a great university, but a lot of people don’t know that. I think that Made at Sac State is a brilliant campaign, and now we’ve got to do a lot more branding for the university. That’s one of my highest priorities,” he says. “It’s about making Sacramento State even better than it is.”

Dixie Reid

President Robert S. Nelsen: A brief biography

Dr. Robert S. Nelsen, Sacramento State’s eighth permanent president, comes to Sacramento with his wife, Jody Hawkins Nelsen.

Nelsen’s experience in public higher education spans nearly three decades, most of it spent in the University of Texas system. He was president of UT-Pan American from 2010 to 2014 and most recently served as special advisor to UT’s executive vice chancellor for Academic Affairs. 

Nelsen was born Jan. 21, 1952, in Brigham City, Utah, and grew up on a ranch in Montana. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science from Brigham Young University, and his doctorate from the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, where his fields of study were modern literature, modern philosophy and modern political theory.

In 1989-90, Nelsen taught English at the University of Illinois at Chicago before joining the faculty of the University of Texas-Dallas, where he founded the creative writing program and served as its director. During his 18 years at UT-Dallas, he also was a professor of Literary and Aesthetic Studies, and served as vice provost.

In 2008-09, Nelsen was a professor of English and associate vice president for academic affairs at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. In 2010, he returned to the University of Texas system as the president of UT-Pan American in Edinburg. Among his proudest achievements was leading the effort to merge the university with the University of Texas-Brownsville to create the new University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley, which has a medical school.

He is a prolific and award-winning short-story writer. His play "We Bums" had a three-week run at Dallas’ Deep Ellum Theater in 1995.

Among his many awards and honors, Nelsen was named the 2014 Man of the Year by the Rio Grande Valley Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and received a Literacy Champion award from the South Texas Literacy Coalition in 2012. This spring, the Edinburg City Council unanimously voted to rename a city street "Dr. Robert Nelsen Drive."

Learn about Sac State’s future

Sacramento State is positioned for a bright future with the approval of its Campus Master Plan, which details the physical improvements to be made over the next 20 years; and the Strategic Plan, which shapes the University’s mission, vision, values, and strategic direction through 2020.