SN&R’s interview with new Sacramento State president Robert Nelsen

SN&R chats with the university's new president

New Sacramento State President Robert Nelsen says getting kids to graduate more quickly, so that they don’t have to stick around and take unnecessary courses, is key.

New Sacramento State President Robert Nelsen says getting kids to graduate more quickly, so that they don’t have to stick around and take unnecessary courses, is key.


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

For students hoping to walk the stage and graduate at California State University, Sacramento, they'd better be ready to wait a few years.

This is because Sac State’s four-year graduation rate is 9.7 percent. That’s right: Only one out of 10 students earns a degree in four years. That number is a handful of clicks lower than the average for CSU schools, 14.2 percent, and significantly below the University of California average of 51.4 percent, according to California Postsecondary Education Commission data from 2012.

The good news is that new Sacramento State President Robert Nelsen aims to change these numbers—and a lot more. He sat down with SN&R a few weeks back for a chat on higher education and higher challenges:

Welcome to Sacramento. Why don’t you talk about your first few months here, and what you’ve gleaned about Sac State?

I’ve been here almost 100 days; it’ll be 100 days at the end of the week. There is a real dedication among faculty for student success, and there is a real caring, nurturing environment. But we have a long way to go, that 9 percent graduation rate that you’ve heard me talk about is a reality.

Why do so few students graduate in four years?

A lot of it is threefold, that’s what I’ve learned. Some of it’s college readiness. Coming in, we have 56 percent of our students in remediation. Nationwide, the average is 20 percent. That’s a very high number.

No. 2, we have not been good at supplying the classes that our students actually need. We’re putting in software that will solve that, but we have not been good. We had, for one [statistics] course, we had 50 students rushing for four slots to try to get in. So there are students that are just waiting. …

Then, we’ve got to think about how we’re going to handle impaction. When you have over 400 nurses trying to get into a nursing program that they’re not going to get in and they end up being in social work or they end up dropping out. How do we get them into majors much more early so they don’t get to that point where suddenly, “I only wanted to be a nurse” and you drop out, or “I only wanted to be a psychologist.” Or even the entire business school is impacted at this point.

We have these professions with seemingly tremendous shortages, like nurses—and we have many people who want to become nurses—and then the colleges that have nursing programs don’t have enough open slots. Then other majors, where there isn’t a lot of demand, we seem to have a lot of slots.

We have a lot of slots. Like in sociology, what are we going to do with a sociology degree? It really does vary from place to place, and it becomes very difficult for the students.

Impaction is created by the state. This is unique to California, at least in my experience. We are always about growth where I’ve been before. But we turned away 3,600 students, because we’re physically capped at the number of students we can have. We’re capped at those other areas. It’s a disconnect.

In terms of enabling students to graduate, how much of it has been just reallocating resources?

First off, we’ve got to get more faculty, so that we can have more courses. That’s just the bottom line.

When we went through the recession here, we didn’t cut courses. Instead, we hired a lot of part-time faculty. And part-time faculty can’t teach just as much as a full-time faculty, of course. So, we’re short on the number of courses we’ve got. And faculty have to be involved in deciding what the majors and curriculum will be and how it’s going to be delivered.

When I spoke to the union rep about this, one of the things he mentioned is that Sac State, as opposed to other state schools, didn’t hire as many faculty.

We hired more part-time faculty than full-time faculty; that is accurate. We made a decision, [previous] President [Alexander] Gonzalez and his cabinet made a decision, that what they were going to do was keep the number of seats available that they had available. They would fill those seats with part-time faculty. … Instead of going out and doing what other universities did, they cut programs. Not academic programs, but services and things like that, so that they could hire more faculty.

You’ve spoken about how there needs to be a different view of Sac State, and how the university needs to be way more involved in the community. Part of the rap when I first moved to Sacramento in ’89 was it was kind of like “Fort Sacramento” here.

We have to change, and become a “yes university.” We’ve tended to be isolated, especially during the rough economic times. Instead of reaching out, we’ve hunkered down so we could take care of our students here. I’m on the GSAC board on purpose.

The GSAC board?

The Greater Sacramento Area [Economic] Council. With Barry Broome and all of those people, as we’re trying to do economic development. I’m on the Metro Chamber. I’m on the Valley Vision. Each one of my cabinet members are on, maybe it’s the Asian American Chamber or it’s the Hispanic Chamber or some organization, to try and reach out to be a part of the community. We need that, because we need more internships. … We’re only as great as the city is great. So everything we can do to make the city even greater.

What are some of the things Sac State will be accomplishing in five years?

You’re going to see more co-op programs. Co-op programs are where students go out and they actually work for a semester, and then come back, and the course is built around that. You’re going to see more cultural events that are taking place, and involvement in the local communities out there, whether it’s Oak Park or Land Park. But you’ll see the arts in a larger role out in there. You’ll see more service learning courses where we are working with 501(c)(3)s.

What’s that?

Service learning is when you go out and you do a project for, maybe it’s Loaves and Fishes. Maybe the project is going to be helping them with their inventory and doing the inventory process, but it’ll be reaching out into those areas.

So, more life experiences?

For the students, yes, experiential learning.

Let’s discuss affordability for students. You mentioned increasing the graduation rate so that they save a whole year.

If we get them out, they don’t have to take remediation courses, because those courses don’t count for anything—but they have to pay for them. So, getting the students prepared when they get here, that’s going to save one to two years. …

Is the cost of Sac State going to go up?

I don’t see us raising tuition or fees at this point. I have said … that, for the event center, we are going to raise the funds for it. We’re not going to put it on the students’ back, and we’re going to try to do everything we can to keep the tuition fees where they are. We are half the price of a UC.

Speaking as a parent that had two kids go to a UC, it’s not the tuition that’s the big cost. It’s the living on campus. It’s the extra year.

That’s the biggest cost.

That’s gigantic.

That’s why I’m talking always about four, not six, year rates. Our students, if they can’t get a class, then they’ve got to wait until next semester to get a class, so they’ll take something else. That’s just what we’ve got to change. It’s the cost of living, the cost of books. We’re trying to move more and more to electronic books, more and more to rent textbooks, and things like that, to be able to keep those costs down.

Housing, we’ve got to keep as affordable as we can, and I think we’re doing a fairly good job on that. But we don’t have nearly enough beds to help.

Are there plans to do more?

We’re building a dormitory now that will have 400 beds. We’re purchasing from the city over on Folsom [Boulevard] a series of ballparks over there where we will put in more housing there, as well.

Will we see Sacramento State moving downtown anytime soon?

We’re in the process of looking to rent a space down there and move the public policy [school]. And all of those programs, centralize the Small Business Development Center and work with them.

Would this be a graduate program?

It would largely be graduate programs, executive programs. They’re so many staffers that are actually graduates of here, or they are graduates of Berkeley and they want to get their master’s degree. It’d be for them largely, and the executive program and the MBAs down there.

How’s the fundraising going?

We’ve restarted the President’s Circle and that’s $5,000 to be a part of the President’s Circle. Those funds go for study abroad; we only sent 81 students abroad last year, 84 or 81, I see both numbers, but that’s less than 1 percent. We need to raise money for scholarships and funds for them. …

I had a student today whose mother just had a stroke. He’s going to have to be helping his mother, and everything else, and he’s going to have to quit his job. And he’s thinking about dropping out. No, we’ll help you. So there’s some emergency fund money for that person. Then the final [fundraising piece] is for the food pantry. We have 45 students a day going to the food pantry and asking for something.