New Sacramento State President Robert Nelsen takes on low graduation rates

Jeff vonKaenel

It was not a typical Sacramento Rotary luncheon speech. And I doubt that the speaker, Robert S. Nelsen, will be a typical Sacramento State president. I have been to hundreds of Rotary speeches, but this is the first time I remember a speaker choking up while speaking.

Nelsen was telling several hundred Rotary members about his experiences in Texas, where he was the president of the University of Texas-Pan American in southern Texas. The college had around 23,000 students. They were 91 percent Hispanic, 3 percent white and 63 percent low-income. And, as Nelsen tells it, the Texas educational system was happy to pour out capital expenditures to colleges with rich white students—but ignored UTPA.

This left UTPA without enough classrooms, without enough labs and with a very difficult teaching environment. So, UTPA dissolved itself and then combined with another Texas university, which enabled them to tap into Texas educational capital funds.

Here is the place in the story where Nelsen choked up.

He explained that, because of this change, hundreds of millions of much needed dollars were released to the new university, transforming it. There would be new classrooms and new labs for the students that Nelson clearly loved.

Nelsen quickly composed himself and went on to explain his current challenge. Only 9 percent of Sacramento State students graduate in four years. This compares to 15 percent at other state colleges and 50 percent at University of California schools. This is a tragedy. Many students are unable to graduate simply because they cannot get the classes that they need.

Using a new computer program, students will receive information about the required classes for graduation. Even better, the program will generate information for the administration about what classes are needed. And best of all, there is a university president who is willing to make sure that these classes get on the schedule.

I thought this might create friction, so I called Sac State’s California Faculty Association President Kevin Wehr to find out what the union was thinking.

Wehr had nice things to say about Nelsen. He was happy that Nelsen was planning to increase the number of permanent faculty positions. When asked about the low graduation rate compared to other state schools, Wehr pointed to former President Alexander Gonzalez, who he said dramatically increased administration positions while neglecting to fill needed faculty positions.

There’s hope that perhaps the union and Nelsen could work together.

I imagine that a few years from now, in a Sacramento backyard decorated with “Congratulations Graduate” banners, there will be a young woman in front of a hushed crowd of friends and family. She will thank everyone for coming. And then she too will choke up. She thought she would have to drop out of college because she could not get her classes and couldn’t afford another year. But she did get her classes. And her friends and family will choke up with her. And if he was there, Nelsen might tear up, too.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.