Robert S. Nelsen is the president of Sacramento State University. (Photo by Wes Davis)

The Way We Work: Robert S. Nelsen

A glimpse into the daily life of Sacramento State President Robert S. Nelsen

Back Article May 4, 2023 By Jeff Wilser

This story is part of our May 2023 print issue. To subscribe, click here.

The sounds of a fire engine blare from the phone. “Right now, that’s an example,” says Robert S. Nelsen, the president of Sacramento State University. “Now I’m looking at my email to find out where it’s going on campus.” (It’s a medical call to Sequoia Hall, the science building.)

Fire engines, medical calls, protests, academic policy, a $400 million budget, COVID-19 challenges, donor relations — this is all in a day’s work for the president of a 33,000-student and 2,000-faculty university. “And then you’ve got a 350-acre campus that you’ve got to keep beautiful and running,” says Nelsen, who, after taking the reins in 2015, is retiring at the end of the school year.

It’s a retirement that’s well-deserved, as the days start early and go late.

5:00AM - Before getting out of bed, immediately checks his phone for any urgent texts or alerts that might have happened overnight — like a student medical issue or a problem with the campus computers.

5:10AM - He always skips breakfast. Preps for the day and commutes from his home in Tahoe Park to his office at Sac State. (The president never works remotely, not even during peak-COVID.)

6:00AM (at the latest) - A rare and sacred block of time for himself: While sipping Earl Grey tea, he scours both the news (The New York Times, Politico, the Sacramento Bee) and industry periodicals like The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scans his day file, a physical folder prepared by his staff with a detailed schedule and briefings for each upcoming meeting.

7:00AM - The gauntlet of meetings begins. The president is usually in back-to-back meetings from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. 

7:45AM - Quick break to catch his breath, review notes on the first meeting (he always takes notes), and recap with his chief of staff. Nelsen caps every meeting at 45 minutes to allow this buffer time. 

8:00AM - Meeting No. 2. Often they’re weekly one-on-ones with each of his 13 vice presidents.

8:45AM - Nelsen receives several hundred emails every day. He tries to read as many as possible during these 15-minute “breaks.” 

9:00AM - The meetings often focus on the annual budget, policy (such as weighing the merits of new academic programs), or discussing student-led initiatives (such as a proposed no-plastic rule).

12:00PM - Sometimes he’ll have a lunch meeting with donors or regional heavy-hitters like Mayor Darrell Steinberg or Barry Broome, CEO of the Greater Sacramento Economic Council, but often he’ll just work at his desk and eat “something I can plop in the microwave.” 

12:30PM - Some days the meetings are for the annual Out of the Darkness Campus Walk for Suicide Prevention, an initiative to remove the stigma of depression in an effort to help curb attempted suicides. “It’s so important to me,” says Nelsen, who lost a son to suicide 22 years ago. “To come together when someone is hurting” is “why I do this job,” says the president. “It’s all about the students.”

1:00PM - Meetings, meetings and more meetings. The topics range from parking problems to scholarships to hiring a new coach for the basketball team.

5:00PM - Huddles up with his chief and deputy chief of staff to review his notes, recap the meetings and delegate actionable next steps. 

5:30PM - On most evenings he’ll head to a work-related event — such as a board session for the Sacramento Metro Chamber or Valley Vision, or dinners with donors. He and his wife Jody Nelsen will often host these dinners at their home.

6:00PM - On other nights he’ll go to “as many sporting events as I can,” so you can often spot him at Sac State baseball, football and basketball games. As Nelsen says, “I bleed green and gold.” 

9:00PM-ish (or later) - Finally gets home, enjoys a drink (bourbon, vodka or mezcal) with his wife and they discuss their days. Plays with his three cats (Tito, Tatiana, Buddy). Not much time for reading or TV. 

10:30PM - Finally heads to bed — it’s been a long day.

Tips for staying focused: 

Carries index cards in his pocket, which he uses to jot down notes to remember important details or prep for his next meeting.

How he tames meetings: 

“I try to keep meetings face to face. I don’t think Zoom meetings are that effective.” He also keeps them as small as possible “so conversation is taking place.” 

What he wishes he has more time for: 

“Spending more time with the students. I absolutely love it.”

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