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2021 Spring Address from President Nelsen

Read the transcript of President Robert S. Nelsen's 2021 Spring Address to the Sac State community.
Thu Jan 21, 2021

By Robert S. Nelsen

I have struggled with what to say today.

I wrote this speech before the inauguration and before Bruce Springsteen added a new anthem “Meet Me in the Land of Hope and Dreams,” to our hallowed anthems “This Land Is your Land,” “America the Beautiful,” and the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing”—a beautiful song of hope.

A transition of power has occurred. 

It has been peaceful—I worried that it would not be.

Last night, Bruce asked our saints and sinners, losers and winners to grab a ticket and to ride to “A Land of Hope and Dreams.’’

I am asking you today to do the same.

Last year, we decided to start a new tradition—instead of yet another pontification by the President, we decided to bring an expert to campus every spring to speak on a topic of particular interest, a topic that would be transformative for our University.

Well, so much for traditions.

Paul Grossman was brilliant, but…

COVID-19 came, and we went virtual.

And our world changed.

Going virtual transformed my fall address into a real downer—almost everything that I said was (quote) bad news.

This spring, even with COVID-19 raging, I didn’t want to do another downer.

So a few weeks ago, we decided that we should focus on how amazing Sac State has been during this pandemic, how amazing and resilient our faculty have been, how our staff have overcome so many obstacles to serve our students, how our students have persevered and prospered, how 60% of our student athletes achieved a 3.0 or better GPA, how our first-year retention rate has risen to an all-time high of 83.7%, how 91.2% of our transfer students returned for their senior year.

For the last few weeks, we have been accumulating feel-good stories, stories of the fantastic things that our faculty, staff, and students have accomplished in spite of COVID-19.

And the stories are amazing—from our gerontology students connecting with the elderly who are isolated in their homes, to Student Affairs finding ways to house over 50 students who were displaced, to local restaurants like Mulvaney’s and Canon serving five-star meals to students who couldn’t go home over the winter break.

We will find a way to publish those stories—everyone needs a feel-good story from time to time.

But when our nation’s capitol was viciously attacked, when we saw the confederate flag inside the rotunda, when we saw anti-Semites and Neo-Nazis attack Capital Police, when we saw windows smashed, doors kicked in, when we saw terrorists break into the Senate Chamber, when we saw Capitol Police Officer Eugene Goodman staring down a raging racist mob alone, when we saw a fool in Nancy Pelosi’s chair, when we heard idiots, insurgents, chant “Hang Mike Pence,” feel-good didn’t feel so good any more.

Nothing felt good; nothing feels good—I suspect that it will be a long time before we feel good again.

As I wrote in the midst of the attempted coup, our democracy was attacked on January 6th.

As educators, as a University, we are dedicated to preserving our democracy.

Universities were established as a public good—that’s why we were founded; that’s what the 1862 and 1890 Morrill Acts were about.

I have often told students as they graduated and took jobs as teachers that they were entering into a sacred profession.

When I was a custodian in college buffing floors and sweeping halls, I felt that I was doing something special, something sacred because I was associated with a university.

When I was a graduate student advisor, I felt like I was doing something sacred.

Every time that I walked into a classroom as an assistant professor to teach creative writing, I felt like was doing something sacred.

Every time as a reluctant administrator that I turned in an accreditation report, I felt like I was doing something sacred.

Every morning when I pull up to Sac Hall, I still feel like I am doing something sacred.

We are the last bastions of democracy, and we must accept and embrace that sacred honor.

We cannot let COVID-19, racism, stay-at-home orders, hiring freezes, travel bans, or domestic terrorists keep us from our sacred profession.

So, at the sake of yet another boring Spring Address, I hope to show you that there is a way forward, that we are still pursuing our sacred profession, that we are transforming lives and preparing students for leadership, service, and success, as our mission tells us we must.

Please indulge me. 

            I have lived my life as a series of Bruce Springsteen songs. 

For years, Jody and I lived the “Born to Run” life.

I have also lived the “Born in the USA” life, suffered with friends through “Streets of Philadelphia,” connected with my past through “Glory Days,” had many hard days writing while listening to “Dancing in the Dark,” and for many years I raced in the street, pounding the pavement while repeating that song for hours on hours.

I had hoped that I was finally at “The Rising” stage in my life now, but I am not quite there.

Thankfully as you will hear later, Sac State is certainly there—We are on the rise.

What I do know after the inauguration celebration yesterday, after hearing Bruce, is that together with our students we have a chance to meet in “a land of hope and dreams.”

Today, as I address you from my office, I am reliving “Thunder Road.” 

And I take solace in that song.

I ask all of you, in the midst of COVID-19 and insurrection in our capital, to remember our sacred duty; let’s band together; to quote Springsteen, let’s not “run back inside”; let’s “show a little faith.” 

In spite of the pandemic, in spite of the insurgency, I still believe that “there is magic in the night.”

We have one last—no, we have many more chances “to make it real.”

Before Bruce’s performance last night, I wanted to ask you to ride together into the “Promised Land.”

Today, I ask that our dreams are not “thwarted,” that our dreams and our students’ dreams are “rewarded.”

The thunder is still rolling, but we can make a path to the Promised Land, to “A Land of Hope and Dreams.”

Right now, though, the Promised Land may seem to many of you not all that promising; I don’t deny that.

But my hope is that there is sunshine ahead and that we will be leaving all this darkness behind.

Our road ahead will not be easy.

But we have 5 freezers on our campus ready for vaccines that will arrive soon.

We have survived this year in spite of a $10.7M cut. 

The Governor has proposed restoring 3% of our general operating costs—$6.69M more than we had this year.

We are no longer talking about additional cuts.

Nor are we talking about furloughs or layoffs.

I wish that I could tell you that we are going to be whole. 

But the truth is that we will have a budget that is $4.01M less in recurring general operating costs than in 2019.

We may not have a full-out hiring freeze next year, but we will certainly have to have a hiring frost.

We still will have to figure out how to do less with less, even though the very notion of doing less troubles so many of us who are working so hard to do everything we can to serve our students, who deserve so much from us.

And I don’t see travel in our near future.

Nor do I see galas and celebrations.

I admit that it has not been a good or easy year.

Life in the academy will never be the same again after this pandemic and after the insurgency.

There are a lot of ifs, but I firmly believe that we have a pathway forward.

 We will find ways for people to come back safely onto campus, and we will find ways for those who need to continue to work remotely to do so.

We will get to the budget shortly, but let’s tackle COVID-19 testing and the eventual repopulation of campus first.

We have already been testing students who show up at the Student Health and Counseling Center and who either have symptoms or who have been exposed to someone with COVID-19.

We have also been testing student athletes who are competing or practicing in accordance with NCAA guidelines.

The student athletes who are competing are tested 3 times a week including immediately before travelling and immediately after returning.

We have also been testing employees in the recently reopened ASI Children’s Center.

With the start of the new semester, we will be ramping up testing.

We have contracted with a company to do the testing—we cannot do it ourselves; we do not have the personnel to do so.

We will be doing nasal swab PCR testing which is the gold standard. 

We intend to have results within 48 hours, with the occasional 72-hour wait if the labs get overrun with samples.

The testing will be at no cost.

We are billing insurance companies when we can and paying via the federal CARES funding when we cannot.

I will have more to say about the CARES funding when we discuss the budget.

On Sunday, January 24th, we will begin testing all students in the residence halls, and flu shots will be provided for them.

The students will be placed in “modified quarantine”—they will not be allowed to eat inside the dining hall.

They will pick up pre-packaged meals to eat in their rooms.

Students will subsequently be tested again 10 days after the first test.

Once the results are back, the students will either be released from modified quarantine and allowed to attend class, etc., or may be placed in full quarantine.

There will be additional testing if any student becomes symptomatic or tests positive.

All Resident Advisors, Food Service Staff, Residence Support Staff, and Residence Life Coordinators will be tested upon return to campus.

Safety Ambassadors, the students who monitor our buildings, will also be tested upon their return to campus.

So will all Community Service Officers who work for the Sacramento State Police Department.

After the initial test, 10% of these employees and 10% of the students in the residence halls will undergo rotating weekly surveillance testing.

Students and employees will receive multiple emails informing them that they have been selected for surveillance testing.

Students, Staff, and Faculty in research labs will also participate in the 10% surveillance protocol as part of their return-to-campus authorization. 

We are still working on the protocol for surveillance testing for face-to-face classes. 

But there will be testing available for any on campus exposure, again with no out-of-pocket expenses.

Staff, Faculty, and MPPs who may have been exposed to COVID-19 while working on campus also will be offered testing with no out-of-pocket cost.

Obviously, there are additional details that will need to come forth. 

At the system-level, the Chancellor’s Office is working with the various unions to finalize plans.

UEI contracted employees will also have access to on-campus testing using their insurance via the contracted vendor.

We will continue to monitor all positive COVID-19 cases and exposures in our Hornet Family, and I ask you to continue to fill out the form on the COVID-19 website linked on the home page if anyone tests positive for COVID-19 or is exposed, especially on campus.

We will also continue to publish data regarding exposures and positive cases, but we cannot do this if they are not reported.

In accordance with new CAL-OSHA guidelines, we have established a new Infectious Disease Response Team. 

CAL-OSHA has classified any on-campus exposure as a worker’s compensation issue.

This team is responsible for notifying any employee who may have been exposed to COVID-19 on campus and to ensure that contact tracing is initiated.

On our campus, that contract tracing is initiated by the Student Health Center.

Within one business day, potentially exposed employees, as well as relevant unions, will be notified by Human Resources. 

The notification will include the work location, but not any personal information.

There are a lot more details, and they are frequently updated as information becomes available in the FAQ’s on our COVID-19 website linked on the homepage. 

But what you should know is that if there is a major outbreak of more than 20 employees in 30 days, everyone on campus will be notified. 

Eventually, we hope that testing will go away.

What I am sure that you are all wondering is what about the vaccine.  

Specifically, when will I get the vaccine?

I wish that I could give you a definitive answer, but the good news is that it is on its way.

I had hoped that our healthcare providers, our nurses, and our nursing students would have it by now.

I had hoped that our 5 freezers in the Tschannen Science Complex would be filled with the Pfizer vaccine. 

Such is not the case quite yet.

But we do have a plan that the County Health Department has accepted.

Sac State has been approved by the State to receive and administer the COVID vaccine as a vaccination site for Sacramento County Public Health.

We are expected to receive our first shipment of doses this week and plan to begin administering the vaccine to our health care staff and nursing students as early as next week. 

We have already been approved to have a Walk-In Clinic in the Brown Bag Room in the Student Union.

The Clinic will be very similar to the Flu Clinic that we had in the same location.

It can be expanded if needed to Parking Structure 3.

We will use our nursing faculty, nursing students, and healthcare professionals to administer the vaccine. 

Now we just need the vaccine to arrive.

I know that all of you have read or seen the news.

The national and state-wide roll out has been rocky and the availability of the vaccine is not predictable, but we are ready and excited to be part of the solution.

I continue to be told that higher education will be included with primary and secondary education, right after healthcare workers and residents in senior living facilities.

Many of you probably have additional questions or concerns.

Anyone who has questions about testing or vaccines should email covidquestions@csus.edu for additional information.             

Obviously, our goal is to be back on campus safely.

We want to maximize the number of students who get to interface in person, who get to communicate face-to-face.

But safety must prevail. 

460 class sections will be face-to-face during the spring semester.

All of which translates into 7% of our students being in face-to-face classes.

Since the pandemic began, knock on wood, we have had only 293 cumulative positive cases reported from our over 34,000 Hornets—less than 1%.

In Los Angeles, the virus has infected more than an estimated 30% of the population. 

What worries me is that we will lose enrollment, that because of the pandemic and because of the despair in America, students will decide to stop-out, or worse yet, give up their dreams of a college education.

So far, our enrollment has held steady.

Because we are a destination campus, our numbers actually increased in the fall.

But as of Sunday, we have 650 fewer students enrolled for the Spring Semester, compared with last year. 

650 students out of 30,000 students may seem insignificant percentage-wise.

But these are our students, our Hornets.

Student Affairs is working diligently to contact students who are in danger of dropping out, who have financial difficulties, who have lost sight of their dreams.

We expect the numbers to improve. 

Nonetheless, the uncertainty is troubling and could require us to adjust our budget.

What we want the students to know is that the new Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund that was just passed as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 includes $17,867,181 for direct distribution to them.

This $17,867,181 is an exact match with the $17,867,181 that we distributed to students in the fall from the CARES Act.

And we believe the money comes with fewer restrictions.

For instance, we hope that it can be distributed to undocumented students, and that it is not necessarily tied to FASFA and familial contributions.

We will be meeting soon to establish criteria and guidelines for distribution, and it is our hope to distribute the funds to students right after Census Date, most likely around the week of February 26th.

All in all, Sacramento State has been allotted $59,891,260 in Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds, or what is called HEERF II.

We anticipate that this second round of stimulus money will help us to stabilize our overall budget for at least a year.

These funds are one-time funds; they are not recurring and cannot support salaries or ongoing expenses after next year, and as I said $17.9M must go directly to students.

But the remaining $42M, what is called the Institutional Portion, can buy us a year of salvation.

Without the additional stimulus funding and with the continued depopulation of the campus, UEI, Housing, Dining Services, and the Alumni Association would soon be approaching insolvency, and we would have to support them from our reserves from which we already spent $7.9M to balance the budget this year.

Just as with the Student Portion of HEERF II, the Institutional Portion has fewer restrictions this round.

It can be used to defray all sorts of expenses associated with COVID-19, including reimbursements for expenses already incurred, technology costs, lost revenue, faculty and staff training, and payroll.

We will be able to invest in more hot spots, computers, safety equipment, classroom upgrades, distance learning transitions, and emergency pay.

The Institutional Portion can also be used to carry out student support activities and services.

And it can even be used to make additional financial aid grants for students, including paying for healthcare, testing, tuition, food, and housing.

So, I guess we do have a feel-good story here with HEERF II.

But we also have work to do to make sure that the funds are spent wisely and transparently and where they best serve our mission to serve our students.

There is additional good news in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 (which was really two bills combined into one). 

Pell Grants were reinstated for incarcerated students, which means that we can continue developing our plan to offer at least one degree at Folsom Prison.

Additionally, the bill ended the restriction on federal aid for students who have been convicted of drug offenses. 

The FASFA form was simplified, as was the financial aid formula.

More than 500,000 additional students will be Pell eligible next year.

And over 1.8M students will now qualify for the Pell maximum award.

The good news continues—kinda—with our state appropriations.

As I mentioned, the Governor has proposed to restore 3% of the CSU system’s recurring operating funds, an increase of $111.5M over last year’s budget which was cut $299M.

He is not planning on funding the Graduation Initiative, though his proposal has $15M for Basic Needs and $15M in Mental Health to be spread throughout the system.

There is also an additional allocation of $225M in one-time, non-recurring funding for the CSU system.

$175M is for deferred maintenance, which is very good news, though it won’t be a lot once it is divided amongst the 23 campuses.

And there is $30M for emergency student grants and $10M in professional development.

So, what does this budget mean for Sacramento State?

The bottom line is that last year we were cut $10.7M.

If the Chancellor’s Office allocates 6% of the restoration of the $111.5M in general operating costs, we will be restored $6.69M of last year’s cut—which is good news.

The bad news, as I said earlier is that we will still be short $4.01M from where we were in 2019.     

But we should get some extra funding for deferred maintenance.

And the critical funding for basic needs and mental health is recurring and will continue to fund our efforts in these two areas in the future.

Budgets are subject to change, and we do not know how much of our budget will be earmarked for employee mandatory costs such as health and benefits costs.

We will have to be cautious, even conservative.

But in spite of the hiring frost, I think that we will be able to begin hiring critical positions again, including new faculty.

And we do not anticipate needing to reduce personnel through any voluntary separation initiative.

More importantly, with the help of the CARES and HEERF II funding and with the success of our philanthropic efforts, we will be able to continue to support our teaching mission, both virtually and face-to-face, as well as our Inclusive Excellence and Antiracism work and our Anchor University Initiative.

We cannot, and we will not, let our students down.

And we cannot, and will not, put any student or employee in danger.

We must have a safe teaching environment and a safe workplace.

But we all know that given COVID-19, life will be different.

Teleworking can work—we have proven that.

Online classes can be incredibly successful, especially if we invest in them.

Some people will need to work from home; some people will need to be on campus. 

Some will need to do a little of both.

When the pandemic is finally over, we will be in a new world, and we will need to be innovative and flexible.

But whatever we do, we need to do the right thing for Sac State, and we need to do it bottom up and not top down.

If we really are the people’s university, we need to listen to the people.

First and foremost, we need to rewrite our telecommuting policy and guidelines.

Second, we need to invest in our faculty and staff, supplying them with the training and development that they deserve

Third, we need to invest in our infrastructure; we need to make sure that our faculty, staff, and students have the tools and equipment they need whether they are on campus or off.

Finally, we need to look at our policies, including our promotion and tenure policies and our annual evaluation policies, to make certain that they are not only fair and adequate, but also to ensure that they are truly aligned with the new world in which we will all be living.

Using CARES and HEERF II funding, we need to update our classrooms and our labs.

Our classrooms must support Zoom and we need flexible technology that will make HyFlex possible.

Our classrooms need to be dynamic enough to accommodate both synchronous and asynchronous teaching.

HyFlex classrooms can go beyond hybrid courses.

HyFlex classrooms allow some students to be face-to-face while other students remain completely remote for the entire semester.

HyFlex will allow our faculty to build multimodal classes, but first we must build the infrastructure.

Not everyone can or will be able to return to campus immediately. 

Flexible technologies will give Sacramento State the capability to provide simultaneous online and in-person learning.

It won’t be for everyone, but it is just one of the many ways that we may be able to reinvent the University, because that is what COVID-19 requires us to do.

Developing, institutionalizing, and enacting our Antiracism Campus Plan is even more critical given COVID-19 and the racism we have seen across the country, including on our own campus.

Over 100 faculty, staff, and students are engaged in the planning process.

This planning is truly bottom up.

Seven Action Planning Groups are being facilitated by the College of Continuing Education.

These groups are charged with developing short-term and long-term strategies that will transform Sac State into an antiracist, inclusive, and caring campus where everyone belongs.

They are also charged with developing metrics that will help us keep ourselves accountable.

We hope that these groups will be able to present us with a plan by May, but the work will not end then. 

We will have to implement the plan, which means that we will have to build the structure and infrastructure to move forward beyond the morass where we find ourselves today.

To quote Bruce again, we have to “make it real.”

The dream of getting to the “Promised Land,” to a land of hope, will require us to reach out into the community and fully engage with them, fulfilling our promise to be an Anchor University.

In November, the Anchor University Taskforce was transformed into the permanent Anchor University Advisory Council.

The Council has 35 members and is currently in the process of recruiting community members.

It includes faculty from all colleges, representatives from all divisions, and students. 

The Council and the entire Anchor Initiative are dedicated to overcoming the pandemic, racial injustice, and threats to our democracy.

The Council and the Initiative are also dedicated to student success and fulfilling the goals of the Graduation Initiative.

Let me give you just a few examples.

The College of Education’s students have created online lessons for local families who are struggling with learning at home.

Physical Therapy students are operating an online pediatric clinic, ensuring that local youth with developmental issues can get the support that they need.

Dance, music, and theatre productions have moved online, providing art and entertainment to the entire region.

Sacramento State students have volunteered as Contact Tracers to reach out to Black, LatinX, Middle Eastern, Hmong, and other communities who are suffering disproportionately during this pandemic.

Thanks to ASI, almost 2000 voters utilized the Vote Center in Modoc Hall and the Ballot Drop Box in the WELL.

So, I hope that you can see that we have not lost sight of the 5 imperatives:  Student Success, Diversity and Inclusion, Community Engagement, Safety, and the one that I want to end on—Philanthropy. 

As I said when you indulged me to speak personally, I myself am not at Springsteen’s Rising stage, but Sac State is definitely “On the Rise.”

On March 16th, we will have an exciting public announcement to share about the University's first comprehensive fundraising campaign, On the Rise, The Campaign for Sacramento State.

With a goal to raise $225M by 2023 Sacramento State has set an ambitious fundraising goal. 

The On the Rise campaign will raise money for students, knowledge, and community.  

Together, we will double the number of student scholarships.

Together, we will continue to increase endowments to fund faculty development and student supported research. 

Together, we will cement ourselves as an anchor institution and continue to deliver on our promise to be an inclusive and antiracist campus.  

For the unveiling of the comprehensive campaign, please reserve March 16, 2021 on your calendars.

It will be worth the wait.

What we do here at Sacramento State has significance everywhere.

Every dollar invested in Sacramento State makes a difference. 

Together, we will rise.

Together, please indulge me again to quote Bruce, “let’s ride out together” to create, protect, preserve, and grow our democracy.

There is a land of hope that we can make real with our dreams.

Hand in hand, Sac State can put the hard days in the past and make dreams come true.

We are #MakingItHappenAtSacState.

Stingers Up.