Students who live in The University of Texas-Pan American's Bronc Village and residence halls have a new neighbor, UTPA's President Dr. Robert S. Nelsen, who is living on campus for the first month of his presidency starting Jan. 1.
"The first thing I am doing is moving into the dormitory," Nelsen said. "I will live in the dormitory for the first month so that I get to meet the students."
Nelsen, along with his wife Jody, will make Bronc Village their temporary home as the new leader of UTPA familiarizes himself with the student body and campus environment.
"I want a good feel for the undergraduate population here and I also want to figure out why we have a 73 percent occupancy rate in the dormitories. We need to get more students here," he said.
"I hope to send the message that if it is alright for me to live here, it is alright for you to live here too," he added.
Nelsen, who once served as a resident head for the University of Chicago dormitories while a student, said during his stay on the UTPA campus his evenings will be filled with various events and activities planned for him by the Student Government Association and other campus organizations.
"I hope to get to know the students better and I hope that they get to know me better," he said.
Nelsen is also hoping to get to know South Texas community members, who he believes will be key in helping UTPA thrive financially and educationally.
"We need the support of the community so that we can grow. We also need to make sure we are giving back to the community what they are giving to us. This is a community that has embraced the university so I want to make sure that we are giving back as much as we can," he said.
The UT System Board of Regents confirmed Nelsen as the next UTPA president on Nov. 11. Nelsen, formerly an associate vice president for academic affairs and professor of English at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, said he believes "a university is only as strong as its ties to the community are."
So far Nelsen said he has met with several South Texas legislators, city mayors, and economic development and chamber representatives to start introducing himself and his agenda for UTPA.
"I got to see and I've got to be seen," he said. "I need to meet with as many people as I can."
First on his agenda as president, Nelsen said he plans to start assembling a team to work on the university's strategic plan and also focus on increasing the sophomore retention rate, which currently stands at 53 percent.
"The university has been brilliant in what it has done already for student retention and persistence for the first year, but our sophomores are only at 53 percent. So what is happening? I think a lot of it has to do with our sophomores having to work and also how are we maximizing the opportunities for them on campus so they can work here. So those are going to be the starts," he said.
Overall, Nelsen plans to build areas of "targeted excellence," which he said are going to be about the Rio Grande Valley and how UTPA can help the Valley grow and prosper through its manufacturing, health care and education programs.
"We have got to decide what we are doing well here and then build upon those strengths. You don't just try and build by bringing something from the outside, you build on what is important for the Valley and what is good at the University," he said.
Other "targeted excellence" areas Nelsen is looking to create is making UTPA "a model for all other universities" by how it interacts not only with its students, faculty and staff, but the general public too. In addition, he is looking to define what areas of research the university needs to move into and identify and work with faculty on their research and what is needed to grow the research from the bottom up.
"I said when I was here the Valley is a perfect laboratory for education and I still believe that. But we have got to take our lab and refine it and make it even stronger," he said.
Working with faculty is going to be essential in helping UTPA move ahead said Nelsen, who wants to be known for the partnerships and collaborations he plans to build on and off campus.
"I hope that we can become a university, not that we aren't yet, but a university where the faculty all feel a sense of family and a sense of collaboration," he said. "My job is to inspire, but I am to inspire what the faculty aspire to and I am going to make certain we know what those aspirations are and that we help to get to that point."
Nelsen said he realizes the magnitude of the job he has ahead of him come Jan. 1, but it is a challenge he is looking forward to taking on.
"It really has sunk in for me. The enormity of it is there as we are coming into a budget cycle that scares me and we are getting word from the UT System that we could have possible cuts in the budget of 2.5 percent starting soon. We also know the sales tax is way down and that worries me tremendously because we are living off stimulus funds. So the enormity has really sunk in on what we have to do, but the enormity of what we can do has also sunk in because every time I come on campus I see something new that excites me," Nelsen said.