Sacramento State has long been known as a campus rich in cultural diversity. According to the U.S. News & World Report, it is the 15th most diverse campus in the west, while Collegefactual.com ranks it 24th in the nation. Robert Nelsen, Sac State’s new president, says that diversity is precisely why he came to the university.
“I had other opportunities,” Nelson says, “but one of the largest reasons I wanted to come here was the diversity.”
Nelsen, who came to Sac State from the University of Texas Pan-American, knows a thing or two about serving multicultural communities. According to UTPA’s 2015 enrollment data, almost 90 percent of students identify as Hispanic or Latino. Sac State is a bit more diverse than that: According to the Postsecondary Education Commission, 26 percent of its students are Latino, with 22 percent Asian, 34 percent caucasian and about 6 percent African-American.
While Nelsen calls that level of diversity “amazing,” he says it also presents some challenges. With California’s Latino population on the rise, Nelsen says all universities need to recruit and retain an equally diverse faculty. He has made such recruitment at Sac State a top priority in his administration, but the exact path forward is still under construction.
“This issue requires me to be on the bully pulpit, but it also requires more training of search committees and everything else,” he says. “In surveys we’ve done in the Sacramento Unified School District, students often say, ‘I wished I would have had somebody who looked like me teach a class.’ And when I was in the Rio Grande Valley [at UTPA], where such a high percentage of our students were Hispanic, they wanted to have teachers who were also Hispanic.”
Nelsen has put together a task force to review precisely how the campus fosters diversity and expects to have a report this fall. Based on the results, he says the university may need to adjust or replace the methods used by faculty search committees, or better train committee members on current practices. A new diversity oversight position in the president’s office may need to be created. Or, Nelsen adds, it could be something as simple as empowering current professors to reach out to and recruit colleagues at other institutions.
“When we were successful [at UTPA] it was not from hiring a diversity officer but instead empowering the individual faculty members to call up their friends and say, who do you know that’s Hispanic who would be willing to come to Rio Grande Valley? It really was that reaching out, that word of mouth.”
Whatever the eventual process, Nelsen says it is imperative that all state universities recognize the demographic shift underway in California and do a better job of reaching out to the Latino community. Latinos now comprise 46 percent of all California high school graduates, but only about 35 percent of all CSU enrollees and around 22 percent in the UC system. While Sac State is still a bit behind the CSU system as a whole, it recently earned a federal designation as a Hispanic-Serving Institute, which makes the school eligible for far more federal grant dollars.
“That will definitely help with student success in the high schools bringing them all the way into here,” he says. “So the diversity here makes Sac State great.”
For more on Nelsen’s plans for student success at Sacramento State, check back next week for Rich Ehisen’s October edition of Discourse, “Learning Curves” Sign up for our newsletter, and we’ll email you when it’s available online.
(Editor’s note: In the above, Latino refers to students who identify as being of Latin American descent. Hispanic refers to students of Spanish-speaking origin.)