Final presidential candidate Dr. Robert S. Nelsen visits UTPA Sept. 23
Posted: 09/23/2009
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The last of four candidates being considered as a finalist to be the eighth president of The University of Texas-Pan American visited the campus Sept. 23.

Dr. Robert S. Nelsen, associate vice president for Academic Affairs at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, met with various UTPA constituencies including faculty, students and staff during a daylong schedule of meetings, lunches and open forums.

Pictured is Dr. Robert S. Nelsen, associate vice president for Academic Affairs at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, who is the final candidate for the UTPA presidency to visit the campus Sept. 23.
During the first of two open forums, Nelsen, who is also a professor of English at TAMUCC, described his upbringing in poverty-level conditions on a ranch in Montana and how being a first-generation college student, who worked as a janitor while in college, has motivated him to want to lead the University and see those in similar circumstances succeed.

"Why do I want this job? I want to discover the future with you for this University. I am passionate about students ... and getting them to succeed. I want to pay back. I don't want people to leave this Valley; I want them to stay. But I want them to have the education that they can. I want the next generation to not have to be the first generation over and over and that is a possibility," he said.

Nelsen earned both his bachelor's and master's degrees in political science from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah and his Ph.D. from the Committee on Social Thought at The University of Chicago. His Ph.D. fields of specialization were in modern literature, modern philosophy and modern political theory.

Nelsen pointed out the many challenges as well as the University's accomplishments in talking about why he wanted the job.

"I want to celebrate what this University is already doing. It is the second leading Hispanic institution, it's graduating the second greatest number of Hispanic students ... you have number one programs across the board. You have wonderful things here, you've got a Rapid Response Manufacturing Center, for example, that can be one of the premier in the nation," he said.

Prior to his arrival at TAMUCC in 2008, Nelsen worked for 18 years at The University of Texas at Dallas, last serving as vice provost. During his years there he started the creative writing program and nurtured the development of arts and humanities curriculum and activities. Nelsen is also an accomplished author with numerous publications of fiction including a novel.

"There is no university without humanities, is there? I am an English professor and a creative writer," he said in response to a question about of his support of those disciplines.

He said his transition in more recent years to administration reflected his desire to make a difference in more than just one individual student's life. His service to UTD includes five terms as Speaker of the Faculty and he also successfully led UTD's most recent SACS reaccreditation process. Statewide, Nelsen has or currently serves on Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board committees addressing diversity in graduation education and the academic course guide manual. He also has served on numerous committees of The University of Texas System including its academic leadership and graduate education task forces, faculty advisory council, and has presented to the Board of Regents four times. Nelsen said his experience in working with the UT System and the THECB would provide an advantage as the University's leader.

"Anyone you hire is going to have a learning curve. I know the people at System. I have worked with them for a long time. I know how to get things through," he said.

In regard to a question about UTPA's goals in research, Nelsen said the research here needs to be targeted to excellence and specific areas.

"If I come here we will never use the word comprehensive. The research here needs to be pertinent to the Rio Grande Valley, not that it is going to limit us because there is no limit to this Valley. But it will strategically place us to come forward," he said.

Nelsen said he would be a strong proponent of establishing more articulation agreements and cooperative relationships with Mexican universities and that he would play an active role in soliciting corporate support for program resources like new technology but, more importantly, for scholarships.

"Part of the job of president is getting out and having those conversations. If you see me a lot, I am not doing my job as president because I need to be out in the community making the connections that you need," he said.

Nelsen said some of the other qualities a good president would need are a sense of humor, adaptability, friendliness, humbleness, a good business sense and having knowledge of your limitations. He indicated it was important that a president not impose a vision on the university but be a spokesperson for its vision.

"What about me?" he said. "If you call UT Dallas today or Corpus, they will tell you that I get things done. I can be a hammer when I need to be a hammer, I can be soft when I need to be soft, but I can get things done. If there is one word they would say about me, it is probably 'passion,'" he said.

Since Sept. 15, three other candidates have visited the campus to meet with the University community: Dr. Jeremy D. Brown, president of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania; Dr. Carlos Vargas-Aburto, provost and vice president for academic affairs of Kutztown University of Pennsylvania; and Dr. Waded Cruzado, executive vice president and provost at New Mexico State University.

The University community has been invited to share their comments regarding each candidate by the end of the day on Friday, Sept. 25 by e-mailing Comments submitted are not anonymous but will only be available for review by The University of Texas System Board of Regents and selected UT System executive officers.

Persons can view notifications of the next steps in the presidential selection process by going to