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President Nelsen lovingly ‘roasted’ as he prepares to retire

Sacramento State President Robert S. Nelsen, who is retiring in July after eight years at the University, opted to be the target of lighthearted jokes at a roast that took place Friday, Jan. 20, 2023, in the University Union Ballroom, in place of his usual Spring Address. (Sacramento State/Bibiana Ortiz)

They teased him about his bald dome, his Texas roots, and his Western footwear. They ribbed him for his lengthy speeches and tendency to cry in public. They poked fun at some of his outlandish ideas and his loud and enthusiastic “Stingers up!” declarations.

But along with the lighthearted barbs and stories at Friday’s “roast” of outgoing Sacramento State President Robert S. Nelsen, respect and love abounded.

Sitting in an oversized green chair, President Nelsen laughs and claps during a joke at his roast.
President Robert S. Nelsen laughed, clapped and cried during a roast-style celebration of his eight years at Sacramento State in place of a traditional Spring Address on Friday, Jan. 20, 2023. (Sacramento State/Bibiana Ortiz)

Nelsen, who is preparing to retire in July after eight years at the University, opted to be the target of good-natured ridicule at the event in place of his typical, more serious Spring Address.

“I thought it was time to throw our emotions around” as the campus community emerges from the prolonged challenges and isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic, Nelsen said.

The emotional event featured a limerick presentation by the University’s deans, a Nelsen-centric version of Bruce Springsteen’s song “Born to Run,” and remarks by current and former administrators, students, faculty members, and community leaders.

President Nelsen sat center stage in an oversized Hornet-green chair as audience members waved cardboard images of his face. A video and photo montage showed him hugging graduates, submitting to a pie in the face in the name of charity, sharing “high fives” with mascot Herky the Hornet, interacting with athletes at events alongside Jody, his beloved wife of 48 years.

Presenters, many of them wearing cowboy boots in Nelsen’s honor, touched on the President’s major accomplishments, including rising graduation rates, unprecedented fundraising, community outreach, and athletic success. But they also seized on the opportunity to highlight some of Nelsen’s quirks and personality traits.

“I promise to play nice because I still have to graduate,” said student Sage Beamon. “You’ve got passion, and that’s a gold star for me, President Nelsen.”

Ed Mills, vice president for Student Affairs, called Nelsen “the bald guy with a heart the size of the moon,” and said he admired the President’s memory for “oddly specific numbers,” including budget details and the number of students who graduate each year.

Congresswoman Doris Matsui, a staunch supporter of the University, said she was reluctant to “roast” Nelsen.

“He’s been such a fabulous leader in this community,” Matsui said.

“He is not a joke,” she said, pointing to Nelsen as she stood at the podium. “I really don’t want you to leave, and I think a lot of people feel the same way.”

Athletics Director Mark Orr said he has enjoyed working with Nelsen “99% of the time.” But he drew a line when the President once suggested that “a swarm of real hornets” lead the football team out of the tunnel at each home game.

“I love Sac State with all my heart.” -- Robert S. Neslen, president of Sacramento State

Melissa Bardo, who served as Sac State’s student body president in 2015, praised Nelsen’s dedication to students, and his push for higher graduation rates.

“But even you have to admit, President Nelsen, that ‘Finishing in Four’ is easier said than done,” she said, in reference to Nelsen’s eight-year run as president, despite Jody urging him to retire sooner.

The President took the podium to close out the event.

“I love Sac State with all my heart,” he said, his voice breaking. He admitted he was “a little charred” by his roasters, but thanked them nonetheless.

He promised to take “a little bit of California” with him when he returns to Texas after his retirement, and said he plans to work on projects that benefit migrants in the state.

He has confidence, he said, that his successor will be “a great president, someone who can take us even further” than the University has advanced under his leadership.

“Who the hell wouldn’t want to be president of Sacramento State?” he asked.

Sacramento State's deans presented a limerick about outgoing President Robert S. Nelsen, who is retiring in July, during a roast-style Spring Address on Friday, Jan. 20, 2023, that ended with the group leading attendees in saluting "Stingers Up." (Sacramento State/Bibiana Ortiz)


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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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