With the heart of a native son, Dr. Robert S. Nelsen has embraced the culturally rich Rio Grande Valley and its people as his own since arriving in Edinburg, Texas, on January 1, 2010, to take the reins of The University of Texas-Pan American, the fifth largest component of the prestigious University of Texas System.
With a commitment to find ways for the University to help the region grow and prosper through its manufacturing, health care and education programs, Dr. Nelsen set a course early on for UT Pan American that in 2013 culminated in the creation of a new bicultural, bilingual, biliterate University of Texas that will bring unprecedented prosperity to this U.S./Mexico border region. By act of the 83rd Texas Legislature, UT Pan American will cease to exist in 2015, giving rise to The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, complete with its own medical school, that will encompass all of the talent, assets and resources of UT Pan American, The University of Texas at Brownsville and the multi-campus UT Regional Academic Health Center.
President Nelsen was front and center in advocating for a new UT that, unlike UTPA and UTB, would be eligible to receive support from the state’s public endowment, the Permanent University Fund (PUF). That advocacy paid off in a big way in November 2013 when the Board of Regents allocated $196 million in PUF funds for the Rio Grande Valley’s new university and medical school.
And, while plans for the new UTRGV have taken center stage, President Nelsen has been determined to “stay the course” and to continue moving UT Pan American forward for the benefit of the entire Rio Grande Valley. Among the most tangible signs of success are the record 20,053 students enrolled in Fall 2013, UTPA’s elevation to “doctoral serving university” classification by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the creation of a new University College to provide unprecedented support for undergraduate students, membership in the respected Western Athletic Conference and the construction of a new $43 million Academic and Performing Arts Center that will serve the entire region.
Selected by UT System Board of Regents on Nov. 11, 2009, to be UTPA’s eighth (and as it turns out, last) president, Dr. Nelsen came to the University from Texas A&M University-Corpus Christ, where he had served as Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs. However, most of his academic career was spent at The University of Texas at Dallas, where he started the creative writing program and nurtured the development of an arts and humanities curriculum. After winning the Chancellor’s Council Award for Outstanding Teaching, he was recruited into the UTD Provost’s Office and eventually served as Vice Provost there. A recognized administrator and teacher, Dr. Nelsen is also an accomplished author with numerous publications of fiction in journals which include the Story Quarterly, Other Voices, Chariton Review and Southwest Review.
Raised on a small cattle ranch in the rugged “Big Sky Country” of Montana, President Nelsen – like the majority of students at UT Pan American – faced great financial hardships while attending college. Funding his education by working as a janitor in the pre-dawn hours before classes and by selling fish hooks and western clothing in the evenings, he earned B.A. and M.A. degrees in Political Science from Brigham Young University and his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought.