EDINBURG, RGV – Former University of Texas-Pan American President Robert S. Nelsen has offered these parting words as he bids farewell to the Rio Grande Valley: “Somos para siempre familia,” or “We are forever family.”
The much loved administrator has accepted the position of president of California State University, Sacramento, otherwise known as Sacramento State. It is home to 29,349 students.
“Jody and I have loved everything about the Rio Grande Valley, and it will be very hard to leave this magical place,” Nelsen said. “But we are excited to embark on a new adventure in California, and we will take all of you with us in our hearts. Somos para siempre familia.”
Nelsen, who becomes the eighth permanent president of CSUS, takes over from President Alexander Gonzalez, who is retiring at the end of the academic year after 12 years as president.
“Dr. Robert Nelsen is an ambitious and visionary leader who will successfully build on the foundation President Gonzalez has established at Sacramento State,” said CSU Trustee Steve Glazer, chair of the Sacramento State Presidential Search Committee. “He has extensive experience leading a large, diverse university and a long history of always putting students first.”
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Nelsen, aged 63, was born on a cattle ranch in Montana. He received a doctorate from the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought in 1989, a master’s degree in political science from the Brigham Young University in 1979, and a bachelor’s degree from Brigham Young University in 1978.
He has been acting as special adviser to the University of Texas System since his resignation as president of UTPA in August, 2014. He was president of UTPA from 2010 to 2014, an associate vice president for academic affairs at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi from 2008 to 200909, and held the posts of vice provost, associate provost and professor at the University of Texas at Dallas between 1990 and 2008.
Pedro Reyes, UT System’s executive vice chancellor for academic affairs and Valley native, was fulsome in his praise of Nelsen. “Dr. Nelsen served The University of Texas System with great distinction and we will miss his leadership and guidance. He embraced the culturally rich environment of the Rio Grande Valley as president of UT Pan American, and his passion and dedication for students and faculty and their success are without comparison.”
Nelsen was named president of UTPA in October, 2009. During his tenure the student body grew to over 21,000, with total enrollment increasing by 9.4 percent. First-time, full-time freshmen increased by 32.4 percent and first-time entering transfer students topped 35.6 percent.
Nelsen is particularly proud of the fact that six-year graduation rates increased by 9.8 percent, while the annual freshman retention rate rose to 76.1 percent. UTPA’s athletics program joined the Western Athletic Conference under his tenure and the university was named “College of the Year” by the National Hispanic Institute for 2014. The NHI moved UTPA’s overall university classification up to “doctoral serving university.”
Nelsen stepped down as president of UTPA in August, 2014, soon after Dr. Guy Bailey had been named president of UT-Rio Grande Valley. Nelsen had applied for the post and made the shortlist.
Nelsen and former UT-Brownsville President Juliet Garcia effectively worked themselves out of a job when they joined Reyes, former UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa and former UT System Board of Regents Chair Gene Powell to work on the creation the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley as a replacement for UTPA and UTB.
Asked by the Rio Grande Guardian in August, 2013, if he was making a sacrifice in pushing for the merger of UTPA and UTB even though it could cost him his job as president of UTPA, Nelsen said: “I don’t think it was a sacrifice. I think it was a wonderful opportunity to be able to help the children in the Valley and I always looked at it as a way to save our children.”
Editor’s Note: In the main picture accompanying this story, former UTPA President Robert Nelsen is pictured with his wife, Jody.