Seeing him sitting comfortably in a suit and tie, you would have no idea. But ask him, and the University of Texas-Pan American’s eighth president, Dr. Robert S. Nelsen, will tell you this wasn’t always the case.
“I always wore black. It is my signature. In fact, the first time I wore a white shirt was for my interview here.”
This real-life rancher is a long way from his home in McAllister, Montana, a small town seven miles north of Ennis in Southeastern Montana. He graduated from Ennis High School and earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science from Brigham Young University and his PhD from the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. He chose modern literature, modern philosophy and modern political theory for his doctoral fields of specialization.
Nelsen taught at the University of Illinois at Chicago for two years before heading to Texas in 1990 to teach at the University of Texas at Dallas. During his nearly 20 years at UT-Dallas, he established a creative writing program and played an instrumental role in the development of an arts and humanities curriculum. Nelsen held several leadership roles during his tenure, among them Speaker of the Faculty and executive committee member for the Faculty Advisory Council to the Chancellor and Board of Regents.
In 2005, UT-Dallas awarded Nelsen the Chancellor’s Council Outstanding Teaching Award from a field of more than 90 tenure-track faculty members nominated by students. A story on the school’s web site shares what four students said about Nelsen:
One UTD student who nominated Nelsen for the award praised the professor for the way he “teaches techniques that can be adopted by students in their own individuality,” and another wrote: “I thoroughly enjoyed his class — (I) learned so much more about what I could do when I stepped outside the box, even for a little while.” A third student said Nelsen’s class was the “most inspirational class I have ever taken,” and a fourth said of the professor, “His passion for art and teaching is evident every day.”
Shortly after accepting the award, the provost at UT-Dallas summoned Nelsen to his office. He needed a vice provost, and he felt certain he had found him.
“He wanted someone with the respect of the faculty and someone he’d known for a long time, someone he knew he could trust,” Nelsen said.
While many may have jumped at the opportunity, Nelsen said no. In fact, he said no five times.
“And then,” Nelsen said, “on the sixth time, he said, ‘You start Monday.’”
Nelsen had resisted because of his love of teaching.
On his first day as vice provost, co-workers in the office presented Nelsen with a stuffed bear decked out in a black hat, a black leather jacket and wire-rimmed glasses, symbolic of their new vice provost.
After 18 years at UT-Dallas, Nelsen’s trail took him to Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi in 2008. There, he served as vice president for academic affairs. His wife, Jody, is executive vice president for finance and administration.
January 1 of this year, the Montana rancher turned Texan accepted the top position at UTPA. Nelsen knew the UT System and its Board of Regents, an obvious advantage as it shortened his learning curve significantly. His experience on the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board was another obvious benefit.
While many college presidents move into their new communities and quickly settle into a spectacular home, Nelsen moved into Bronc Village, one of UTPA’s dormitories, for a month. He knew this would be a great way to get to know undergraduate students and to learn first-hand why the dormitories are not filled to capacity.
“I got to know a lot of the students,” he said. “I met students who stayed in the dorms even over the break, students who didn’t have other places to go. Many of our students work hard to provide financial help to their families while going to school. It isn’t like you would expect dorm life to be. I got to hear from a nursing student whose mom wanted her to be a teacher rather than a nurse. I heard from a PA (Physician’s Assistant) student who said she didn’t get as many experiences as the nursing students. Living in the dorms was a good learning experience for me. I really got to know the students.”
Nelsen knows what it’s like to work and attend college. A first generation college student himself, Nelsen worked as a janitor to put himself through college. He put those skills to use once again when it was time to leave Bronc Village.
“I was down on my knees scrubbing the floor to leave the room the way I found it,” he said. And then, with a laugh, he added, “I can buff a floor better than anyone here.”
Like most educational institutions, UTPA is facing rough economic times. As a result, Nelsen has been spending a great deal of time in the Business Affairs Office.
“I’ve been going through Budget 101,” he quipped. “I know budget, but every system is different. We are preparing for a new budget cycle. I plan to make the process more transparent.
Recently the Chair of the Board of Regents came to the Valley. Nelsen took him to see what he called the “horror” and the “sublime.” The “horror” refers to the colleges of business and science. Both are miserably overcrowded and in need of new facilities. The “sublime” includes things like Second Life, a 3-D virtual environment. At UTPA, criminal justice students build their own avatar and act as a judge or a prosecutor.
Nelsen understands the demands are many while the resources are limited. In fact, UTPA recently announced a $7.4 million budget cut. Nelsen’s top priority is ensuring that the education of the students he refers to as his “18,400 children” will not be affected.
“We’ve got to make those tough decisions,” he said. “Growing student enrollment becomes even more important, as well.”
Nelsen plans to increase enrollment by providing a seamless transition for students transferring from South Texas College, aligning the curriculum and perfecting the transfer process.
He is already working to identify centers of excellence at the university and working with faculty members to further strengthen them. He is excited about creating transdisciplinary teams at the university.
“Look at maquiladoras along our border. We can bring in manufacturing and engineering and integrate them with political science and marketing.” Nelsen’s degree from the Committee on Social Thought provides him with the perfect background for this undertaking.
Nelsen said he needed no adjustment period to settle into life in the Rio Grande Valley. “My biggest surprise was how warm my welcome has been.” At a recent event at the McAllen Chamber of Commerce to introduce Nelsen to the community, he told the crowd, “I’ve had more abrazos than you can imagine.”
Nelsen has already met with all of the Valley legislators, several of the mayors, leaders of local economic development corporations and many others. All have been supportive.
Nelsen still misses teaching tremendously. A published author who wrote his first story,
“A White Horse” at the age of five and who has completed a collection of short stories (Orphans, Bums and Angels) and a novel (Spirits Colliding), Nelsen also misses what he calls “the solitude of writing.”
A voracious reader, Nelsen’s favorite authors include Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, Carol Maso (“She’s just phenomenal”), Charlie Smith, Jeanette Winterson, Michael Cunningham and Cormac McCarthy, but he has learned that university presidents must spend most of their spare time reading material related to their educational institution. He looks forward to returning to his cherished authors.
Nelsen’s wife still works at TAMUCC, but she leaves Corpus Christi every Friday by 3:00 and arrives in the Valley by 5:30. The couple attends events throughout the weekend and then looks forward to the following weekend when they can be together again.
In his office at UTPA, Nelsen keeps some of his greatest treasures…a saddle that once belonged to Calamity Jane, a saddle she gave to a friend who in turn gave it to Nelsen. Propped up on the saddle is a picture of this famous frontier woman. On one of his shelves sits the stuffed bear decked out in leather, a reminder of his ranching roots.
Hints of home that look oddly at home in Nelsen’s Rio Grande Valley office.