Student-Focused Leadership

The below was originally published on

In years past, a description of a popular university leader may have included words like “strong,” “dynamic” and “worldly.” Today, there’s been a fundamental shift on campuses in how leadership is viewed and in the relationship between administrators and students. In the academic world, this new leadership model might be called the “interactional framework for analyzing leadership,” (Hughes et al, 2013) which identifies leadership as the intersection of leader, followers, and situation.

I caught up with Robert Nelsen, the eighth permanent president of California State University Sacramento, who sits, or, more accurately, walks briskly through that intersection. For Nelsen, everything starts not with who he is, but with the students. This includes the lobby in the president’s office, which is dominated by a large photo of students, not buildings or founders or past leaders like one often sees. The student-centered philosophy reflects an increased expectation of transparency, access and empathy from administrators to students. This connection with students is not just lip service from Nelsen, who speaks with an enthusiasm that’s hard to discount. When asked what he’d like to do more of, responds with, “I’d like to eat more meals in the dormitories than I do.”

The shift from a focus on the institution to one on students is happening at campuses across the country, and it isn’t without a few bumps, as some institutions have a history of “faculty first.” While faculty are on everyone’s mind at Sacramento State, it’s primarily for student education. Nelsen notes, “You have to get the entire leadership behind it. If they don’t put students first, you aren’t going to get there.” This isn’t just about him being there for a wide range of sporting events, from baseball to gymnastics to women’s basketball. When there’s a protest on campus, you’ll often see him sitting down to listen to what those gathered have to say, sometimes for hours.

A part of the student focus is practical. There’s a need to increase graduation rates and decrease the length of time it takes the average student to reach that milestone. Along with Nelsen’s motivation, new online tools help students meet this goal, as well as continued support at multiple steps along the way. Any discussion with Nelsen includes mention of these steps, such as adding more discussion sections, adding more faculty where needed, rethinking remediation and increasing the effectiveness of course scheduling and planning for students.

Patrick Dorsey is a graduate student in public policy and administration and the immediate past president of Associated Students, Inc., the student government of Sacramento State. He’s seen a change in the “life of the campus and the energy that would be two ways as students would see him [Nelsen] on campus and exchange ‘stingers up,’ hand signals.” This kind of exchange is extending into the surrounding community, and Dorsey sees it happening between alumni as well, which was something he never saw before.

“Today’s students expect more from administrators,” said Susana V. Rivera-Mills, Vice Provost and Dean of Undergraduate Studies at Oregon State University. “I think this stems first from the fact that many of them are now paying a lot more for their education, and as a result they also expect to get more.”

According to the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, people have lost trust in the four institutions of government, business, media, and NGOs to do what is right, resulting in a rise of populist actions. This trend may also help explain the shift to student-first leaders, who, like Nelsen, may be seen as coming from the people (or students) as opposed to representing an establishment.

At Sacramento State, the student body reflects a change seen on many campuses: they aren’t the expected 18-year-olds living in the dorms. With 24 percent of students 25 or older and a median age of 22, this shift may have an impact on graduation rates, as students are often doing more than just focusing on their studies. Many students are also parents or working full time to support their education.

Rivera-Mills at Oregon State notes, “Many of our students are not the traditional age, they come to us with real life experiences and a sophistication for understanding administrative organizations. This knowledge also places them in an informed position about what they can expect from a university, and they are not shy about asking for what they need.”

Since today’s students are a little different than the students of years past, maybe they’d like having lunch with the president in the cafeteria as much as the president likes being there.