Robert Nelsen took the helm as president of Sacramento State in July. Before coming to Sacramento, Nelsen was instrumental in turning around the struggling University of Texas Pan-American — growing enrollment, raising revenue and boosting the university’s role in the community. We sat down with him recently to discuss his vision for California’s only true capital university.
Your predecessor, Alex Gonzalez, forged a very close relationship between the university and the local and regional business community. What are your views and goals in this regard?
We’re going to be very involved in the local community. I am on the Metro Chamber Board, I’m on the Greater Sacramento Area Economic Council and I will be on the Valley Vision Board. I’ve also challenged each of the members of my cabinet to sit on a board in the community. Probably the biggest thing we’re doing right now is looking at our strategic plan, which talks about the community but doesn’t align with the Next Economy regional plan. We are going to align with that plan, and we are also aligning it to the mayor’s Sacramento 3.0 vision — what Mayor Johnson wants to do with innovation, technology and entrepreneurship. We haven’t pushed as hard at entrepreneurship as we will be doing in the future. That will put us there. We are moving the Center for Public Policy, looking for space downtown now so that we have more of a presence in and around the Capitol.
UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi has big plans for UCD to have a satellite campus in Sacramento and for becoming the food science hub for the world. Have you talked with her about things that UC Davis and Sac State could work on together?
Yes. They do a lot of the theoretical research, and we’re going to supply the applied research. You need both to be successful. Tech transfer is something we can work on, which is when you transfer technology to corporate America in some way or another. That’s where we can provide the strengths and be partners. If I have a legacy when I leave here, I hope it is that we have partnered with the city, state governments, chambers, UC Davis and the Los Rios Community Colleges.
One of the challenges in higher education is getting students to their degree within four years. Much of this is due to a lack of available classes. You’ve talked of your desire to use technology to improve graduation rates. What exactly is your plan?
Humble Beginnings:Raised on his family’s Montana cattle ranch, Nelsen rode horses bareback because the family couldn’t afford a saddle for him. He has come a long way since then, but hasn’t forgotten his roots. Cowboy boots are everyday wear, and the centerpiece of his office is a saddle once owned by Calamity Jane, a reminder of his own humble beginnings and his dedication to students.
Well everybody immediately thinks I’m talking about online classes. I’m not, although there’s no question we are going to do more online classes and more blended classes, where one day you meet on campus and one day you meet online. But when I’m talking about technology, first and foremost students and staff need to know what classes they need to take. Right now they have no way of doing that. Our advisors are overworked, so students often can’t even get in to see advisers. We’re going to make degree plans available online so students can see exactly what classes they need to take. That will then translate to another two pieces of software: Ad Astra — which schedules classes, finds all available spaces in the [student's] schedule and automatically populates those with classes — and Platinum Analytics, which reads the degree plans and determines what is needed for a student to complete each one. For example, let’s say 35 students need a particular course. We’ll know now that we need to put that course up, and a dean will automatically know three months in advance what courses they need to have next semester.
The Legislature has also talked of creating cash incentives to prompt students to get done faster. Is that enough, or are there perhaps disincentives you would consider as well?
I think carrots work a lot better than sticks, especially with students. In Texas we knew that if a student takes 30 hours a year times four, that’s the 120 hours they need to graduate. So we set up a very simple incentive. If you took 15 hours this semester, we’ll give you a $500 credit for next semester, so that you’re able to take that same number again. A student can potentially gain up to $1,000 that way; that’s a big incentive for a student. If a student can only take 12 hours per semester, if they’ll take six during the summer, that ends up at the same 30 hours and we give them $1,000 toward the fall when they’re ready to move forward. I think incentives like that work. We’re also talking about helping people with books and with jobs on campus. If you have work study and jobs on campus, the students fare much better. We’re going to put priority on hiring students as much as we can so that they stay here. When you’re flipping a burger, you’re not thinking about macroeconomics. You just aren’t. But if you’re here on campus, you’re working and you feel like it’s similar to what you’re studying, it works. We also have to increase the size of our summer school, so we need incentives for our faculty to teach during the summer. If we can approximately double the size of our summer offerings, think about how fast we could move our students.
For years Sacramento State was seen primarily as a commuter school. That has changed some in recent years. But how do you ensure the school remains part of the community and does not return to being an island?
The Impact of Impaction:Sacramento State’s funding is based on having 25,000 full-time students. But a lot more than that want to go there. Last July alone, impaction led to 3,600 students being denied enrollment. Nelsen says turning away students is a big shift from his experiences in Texas, where the primary drive was to increase enrollment. But this year’s state budget fully funds the California State University system for the first time in many years. Instead of increasing enrollment by only 40 students, Nelsen says there is now room for an additional 460 — totaling over $996,000 in additional revenue.
I want us to be an anchor institution, which is an institution that has a societal mission. In other words, it is in their DNA to be involved in societal issues, to be involved in business, to be involved in the community. It means that our internship programs and our co-ops have to grow. It means our service learning has to be in our DNA. And really it already is. We do two-million hours in community service at this university. We don’t publicize that. Our strategic plan says we need to put somebody in charge of it, and we will. But having that societal mission says to the professors, classrooms and students that you need to be involved.
One of the major issues in higher education today is the reliance on non-tenure track faculty. This creates concern that students are getting shortchanged on the quality of their education. What can and maybe should be done about this?
During the recession, instead of cutting non-degree programs we instead switched to part-time lecturers. When a faculty member left, we replaced them with part-time people because they’re so much cheaper. So we do have a real imbalance of part-time to full-time tenure-track people. We’re going to change that. President Gonzales started that change last year. He hired almost 50 new tenure-track faculty. This year we hired another 35. Next year I’ve authorized another 40. These are not replacements, these are new faculty coming in. It’s not just about them having better credentials or being better teachers. In a lot of cases, it’s just better to have the stability of somebody who is here all the time. A part-time person is usually in, they teach the class and they leave. We want to hire as many full-time as we can to get a lot more stability and stronger connections with the students.
Where do you see the university being five years from now?
My mission is to turn this into a ‘yes’ university, one that says ‘yes’ and is welcomed and loved in the community, and not thought of as a commuter campus. You will see a new science building here in the next two years, I promise. You will see the event center eventually come up, and it will have a distinguished speaker series. We will have signature events here on campus that everybody will want to come to. The theater program will be stronger — music, dance, all of that. We’ll have a performing arts center. I see STEM education growing. Our engineering program — mechanical engineering now has 1,500 students in it, will grow even more because of our innovation, technology and entrepreneurship.