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President Robert S. Nelsen announces his retirement

President Robert S. Nelsen, who for the past seven years has overseen Sacramento State’s historic student achievement and shepherded the University through unprecedented challenges, will retire in July, he announced Wednesday, Nov. 2.

Nelsen will be remembered for his dedication to student success, his efforts to raise the University’s profile in the region, his commitment to diversity and inclusion, and a deep love for what he warmly called the Hornet Family, among other notable accomplishments.

Whether delivering a speech, shoveling dirt to break ground for a new campus building, or attending an athletic event, Nelsen has been widely admired for performing his duties with unbridled enthusiasm and a gentle sense of humor. His declaration “Sac State is No. 1! Stingers Up!” – often made with his wife, Jody, by his side – has become his signature valediction.

“Sacramento State will always be in my heart,” Nelsen said, adding some flavor from his Texas roots. “I wish I could be president forever, but I know the time is right for me to hang ‘em up.”

Nelsen, 70, became Sacramento State’s eighth permanent president on July 1, 2015, succeeding Alexander Gonzalez, who retired after 12 years of leading the University. Prior to arriving in Sacramento, Nelsen spent the better part of three decades in the University of Texas system.

He was president of UT-Pan American from 2010 to 2014 and served as special advisor to UT’s executive vice chancellor for academic affairs. His career also includes service as a professor of English, a vice provost, and a director of creative writing.

Nelsen 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.

Arriving at Sac State, he said a primary goal was to improve graduation and retention rates, and success followed. Under his leadership, the University has seen a 187% increase in the number of students who graduate within four years. Sac State’s performance in the CSU’s Graduation 2025 initiative is among the best in the system.

With Nelsen’s oversight, the University surpassed its On The Rise fundraising goals, raising $239 million in its first comprehensive campaign. He celebrated completion of major campus projects, including the funding, construction and 2019 opening of the Ernest E. Tschannen Science Complex, and the Planetarium next to it. Nelsen also was instrumental in the creation of Sac State’s Antiracism and Inclusive Campus Plan, which is guiding the University toward its goal of creating a campus culture that is fair and welcoming to all.

The gains have occurred even as Sac State was forced to adjust to the devastating impacts of a global pandemic, which in March 2020 sent students, faculty, and staff members home to study, teach, and work. The campus quickly pivoted to online learning, and notably, the University’s enrollment and graduation rates held steady. About 31,000 students returned to campus in the fall, and the University maintains a COVID-19 positivity rate of less than 1%.

“Sacramento State is an exemplar of community engagement and partnership and, under President Nelsen’s leadership, has solidified its position as a vital anchor institution for the region while enhancing its statewide and national reputation. I congratulate President Nelsen on these achievements and on a shining legacy that will span generations.” -- CSU Interim Chancellor Jolene Koester

CSU Interim Chancellor Jolene Koester called Nelsen “a brilliant, compassionate and student-focused leader who has successfully guided Sacramento State through a period of remarkable growth and transformation.”

“Sac State’s student body is larger and more dynamically diverse than ever before,” Koester said. “Most important, the University has made extraordinary progress in helping that talented and diverse group of students reach their academic goals.”

Koester noted that Nelsen’s efforts to identify new and innovative ways to provide access and opportunity for area students led to a significant expansion of Sac State’s footprint, including the establishment of Sacramento State Downtown and planned construction of the Sacramento State Placer Center.

“Sacramento State is an exemplar of community engagement and partnership and, under President Nelsen’s leadership, has solidified its position as a vital anchor institution for the region while enhancing its statewide and national reputation,” she said.

“I congratulate President Nelsen on these achievements and on a shining legacy that will span generations.”

Nelsen’s announcement drew congratulatory notes and kudos from elected leaders and others across the region and beyond.

“Robert Nelsen has brought visionary leadership to Sac State, invigorating the campus with his unyielding positivity and dedication to the students and staff,” Congresswoman Doris Matsui, who has been the region’s U.S. Representative since 2005, said in a press release.

“His work has been truly life changing, and Sacramento will continue to benefit from his impact and all the students who become our future leaders and innovators,” Matsui said.

Mayor Darrell Steinberg, in a congratulatory tweet, said Nelsen “forever changed Sacramento for the better” with his “compassion for students, tireless drive for academic achievement and exceptional commitment to our community.”

Noting the University’s soaring graduation rates, state Sen. Steve Glazer called Nelsen “a great, impactful, student-centered leader.”

Nelsen said he is proud of Sac State’s progress and grateful for the dedication of the city’s residents and leaders, but is reluctant to take full credit.

“These accomplishments would have been impossible without the faculty, staff, students, and community members who have poured their hearts into this work,” he said.

“It is time for Jody and me to move on so that the University can continue to move forward. All good things must come to an end. The future is bright, and I know that Sacramento State will continue to be on the rise.”

Jody Nelsen, a constant presence at her husband’s side during his tenure at Sac State, said his decision to retire was a difficult one.

“But I’m looking forward to our next chapter,” she said.

“We have loved our time here. A huge thank you to everyone in our Sac State family for all their support over the years. My heart is filled with gratitude.”

The CSU will launch a national search to identify Nelsen’s successor. Koester, along with the chair of the CSU Board of Trustees, Wenda Fong, will select a committee comprised of campus and other stakeholders who will seek campus and community input on the selection of Sac State’s next president.

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About Cynthia Hubert

Cynthia Hubert came to Sacramento State in November 2018 after an award-winning career writing for the Sacramento Bee. Cynthia believes everyone has a good story. She lives in East Sacramento with her two cats, who enjoy bird-watching from their perch next to the living-room window.

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