Nelsen, along with his wife Jody, were welcomed to their new home by the sounds of UTPA’s Mariachi group at the Student Union Theater where they were greeted by applause and a standing ovation from attendees.
The UT System Board of Regents confirmed Nelsen as the next president of UTPA on Nov. 11. Nelsen, formerly an associate vice president for academic affairs and professor of English at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi (TAMUCC), officially begins his presidential duties Jan. 1, 2010.
UT System Chancellor Francisco G. Cigarroa, M.D. and Regent Janiece Longoria, chairman of the Academic Affairs Committee, made the trip to South Texas with Nelsen for his ceremonial visit to UTPA as its next leader.
“I am absolutely delighted to bring greetings on behalf of The University of Texas System and to be part of a new and very exciting beginning for The University of Texas-Pan American and the wonderful people of the Rio Grande Valley,” Cigarroa said.
Longoria, a Rio Grande Valley native, who has been a member of the UT System Board of Regents since 2008, served as a representative from the Board along with Regent Paul Foster from El Paso, on the presidential search advisory committee to review the candidates to fill the role of UTPA’s eighth president.
She said as a Valley native, she was particularly honored to serve on the search committee to choose a new president for an institution that held “a special place in her heart.” Longoria, who is now a Houston attorney, grew up in Pharr and is the daughter of Raul Longoria, a former Valley state legislator and district judge.
“In selecting a president, it is particularly important because we are entrusting the future of this institution and the health of the educational system in this region to the person that we choose,” she said. “The quality of the UT System institutions, including UT Pan Am, has a tremendous influence on the quality of our lives, our children’s lives and the future of the region.”
She said the pool of candidates was brilliant and the process difficult to decide on one person.
“I will tell you though that Dr. Robert Nelsen did stand out and became our choice for this position,” she said.
Describing his credentials and extensive past experience, she said he clearly understands the special roles of the faculty, students and staff in the success of a university and respects their advice and suggestions.
“The search committee described him to the Board of Regents as formidable, commanding presence, full of energy, articulate, charismatic, and having an enthusiasm for the community,” she said. “The Board of Regents saw these same qualities. They whole heartedly agreed that he was the right person at the right time.”
She added that the committee and the Board of Regents were also impressed with his wife Jody’s strong commitment to higher education as well. Jody is an experienced University administrator beginning her career at The University of Texas at Dallas. She is currently executive vice president for Finance and Administration at TAMUCC.
“Robert and Jody Nelsen come here today fully understanding the meaning of The University of Texas-Pan American’s core mission which is to prepare, discover and transform. Robert Nelsen has the passion and vision that UTPA needs now. When he interviewed with us he was compelling because he spoke from the heart and he articulated a very clear vision of his ideas for increasing the accessibility, the accountability and the success at this institution,” she said.
Nelsen thanked everyone for their warm welcome.
“Thank you for agreeing for all of us to work together – mano y mano, hand in hand – to collaborate, form partnerships, to cooperate and to move this great institution forward, as it has been moving forward every year since I first came to the UT System.”
Nelsen said he is no stranger to many of the faces at UTPA, as he has worked with many of its administrators and faculty.
“I’m proud to be here today because of you – because of what you do and what you offer,” he said.
Nelsen said he was raised in a small valley in Montana that didn’t offer very many possibilities and dreams.
“Now I’m coming to a new valley – a valley that is huge,” he said. “It’s a place that is filled with dreams. In this Valley, nine out of 10 kids want to go to college.”
When asked why he wanted to be president of UTPA, he said he wants to provide the best opportunities for students and see education blossom in the area.
“We are reaching out there and offering opportunities to a generation that is going to be able to change this Valley and this world,” Nelsen said. “We’re doing it because we care about them (students) and that’s what this University is about.”
He said the road to our future will require collaboration, cooperation and partnerships.
“We, as faculty members, need to be building bridges amongst the various disciplines, tearing down silos, and creating new and exciting things that are out of the box that are going to allow students to have opportunities,” Nelsen said. “These bridges are the pathways to our success and to the students’ success. In the end it is all about the students and what this University will do to transform lives.”
Cigarroa and Longoria both thanked Charles A. Sorber, who has been serving as interim president since Feb. 16, for his time and work at UTPA during the 10-month search for a university president. Sorber is expected to remain on campus to help Nelsen transition into the position in January.
“I know that I and everybody at The University of Texas System and our entire Board are so grateful to you and Linda (Sorber) for the wonderful job that both of you have done for The University of Texas-Pan American,” Cigarroa said.
Following the UTPA community event, the Nelsen’s also met with university donors and community leaders at a reception held at the International Trade and Technology Building hosted by the UT System.
Nelsen succeeds Dr. Blandina Cárdenas, who retired in January 2009. He 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 are modern literature, modern philosophy and modern political theory.
Prior to his arrival in 2008 at TAMUCC, 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 an arts and humanities curriculum. Nelsen is an accomplished author with numerous publications of fiction, including a novel currently under review by a publisher.
Check out the Photo Gallery of Nelsen's first official campus visit.