Sacramento State President Robert S. Nelsen, in his first address to the campus community on Thursday, Aug. 27, laid out his bold vision for the University, which is focused on student success.
Among his goals are to improve graduation rates, retention rates, and the time it takes for students to graduate. He wants to ensure that students get the courses they need when they need them, and he promised to work to create internships and job opportunities for them.
“I am entirely student-centered,” Nelsen told the standing-room-only crowd of more than 1,000 students, faculty, staff, friends, journalists – and his wife, Jody – who gathered in the University Union Ballroom for his Fall Address. “I chose to come to Sacramento State because of its laser-like focus on students.”
And this fall, Sac State will welcome more students than ever before: a record 30,023.
Nelsen also announced “it is 98 percent certain” that Sac State will get Science II, a new building that will boast state-of-the art science labs and classrooms.
The President began his hour-long talk with a tribute to Sac State senior Anthony Sadler, whose swift actions alongside his two childhood friends last week likely stopped a bloodbath on a high-speed train headed to Paris. Nelsen concluded his remarks, which often were interrupted by applause, while standing alongside Herky, the Hornet mascot, and leading the crowd in what has become his trademark cheer: “Sac State is No. 1! Stingers up!”
Nelsen, who became Sac State’s eighth permanent president on July 1, 2015, was introduced by Faculty Senate chair Sylvester "Jim" Bowie, and spent the better part of his hour at the podium outlining his nine key priorities for the University:
- Work with faculty, staff, students, and the community to improve graduation rates. Nelsen announced a new position of Graduation Initiative “czar” or “czarina,” who will report directly to him. That person will be charged with identifying course bottlenecks and working with “everyone in the University” to eliminate them. He also said the University has purchased degree-planning software that will allow students to go online to chart their progress toward graduation. “A 9 percent graduation rate for our four-year students is unacceptable,” Nelsen said. “And our 46 percent graduation rate for our six-year students is not acceptable, either.” Improving graduation rates, he said, requires that the University “reach back into the high schools and even grade schools to ensure that our students are prepared.” Nationally, 37 percent of college students who must take remedial courses will not graduate. At Sac State, 56 percent of first-year students are in remedial classes, which means they’re also accumulating debt because it takes them longer to graduate.
- Improve retention rates for all four years. Nelsen noted that only 72 percent of the 3,366 students who were freshmen in fall 2013 returned as juniors. The numbers worsened later as only 65 percent returned as seniors. He announced a plan to fund three new programs with $100,000 each: College Ready, Upper Division Ready, and Career Ready. “I want us to be focused on graduating our students with the highest-quality education possible,” Nelsen said, also emphasizing the need to hire more full-time faculty.
- Reduce the time to degree. Nelsen announced a comprehensive review of campus building usage to determine which classrooms are available when. “We have to be willing to use the entire campus and the entire week, even Fridays and weekends,” he said. Once course bottlenecks are removed and students are able to get the classes they need, the plan is for students to receive a $500 credit toward the next semester for every semester they take a 15-unit load. Students who can take only 12 units will receive a $1,000 credit for taking an additional six hours during the summer. The goal, Nelsen said, is to smooth the way for students to graduate in four years. He also noted the need for incentives to faculty to provide a more robust summer school. “We have a moral obligation to help (students) avoid debt and to provide them with the very best education we can give them in the shortest time possible,” he said.
- Centralize data analysis operations. Nelsen advocated the use of one reliable source for data on campus, which would eliminate duplications.
- Create a centralized career and internship office to help students find employment. He will make it a priority to hire students for campus jobs whenever possible, and he advocates the creation of an electronic bulletin board to advertise jobs in the Sacramento community.
- Start a campus-wide discussion of impaction. “We need to develop alternative pathways that are sustainable and do not create a burden on the faculty and staff for students who cannot get into their desired major,” Nelsen said. “And we need to look at when it is appropriate for students to declare a major. … I don’t know the answer, but for the sake of our students, we need to ask the questions.”
- Ensure that Sac State is a great place to work. Nelsen proposed the creation of a task force to develop plans based on exit and climate surveys. It would be charged with “providing strategic initiatives to address the information in those surveys and to make Sac State an even greater place to work.”
- Expand community outreach. The President has joined a number of civic councils and chambers, and will sit on the Sacramento State Alumni Association board because he wants to engage alumni as he raises money for the University. In addition, he has asked each member of his Cabinet to sit on the board of a nonprofit.
- Raise money. The Nelsens host dinners at their home for legacy donors, and they use the Julia Morgan House as headquarters for the new President’s Circle, which raises money for students to study abroad, the ASI food pantry, club trips, and the students’ emergency fund. “We are looking for naming opportunities for the science building,” Nelsen said. “That is our priority. We also need a venue where we can have rock concerts and distinguished speakers, so we are focusing on raising $50 million for an events center. Together, we need to build the Hornet Nation. We need everyone to take pride in being a Hornet.”
– Dixie Reid
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