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Newest UC campus opens in Merced

By Clifton B. Parker on September 2, 2005 in University

UC Merced opens next Tuesday for its first school year, ushering in a new era for education in the San Joaquin Valley. And from the bricks and mortar to the brainpower behind UC Merced, the entire UC system — including UC Davis — has played a key role in creating the first major American research university to open in decades.

Laying the groundwork for an institution of higher education does not happen every day. UC Merced is the first addition to the UC system in 40 years. For its inaugural semester, the campus will welcome 1,000 students and 60 faculty members — numbers larger than some small colleges.

Starting up a university is, quite literally, mind-boggling. Students need classrooms, book stores, libraries, dormitories, and places to pay their college fees, talk to academic advisers, use their computers, and study and relax. And while most of the essential facilities are ready at Merced, it is no surprise that construction is still ongoing.

UC Merced spokeswoman Patti Waid Istas said that the library will be the primary hub for classes during the first semester. A classroom building is due to open sometime during the semester, she added.

'Big brother' UC Davis

Lindsay Desrochers, the UC Merced vice chancellor for administration, generously spreads the credit around the UC system, from Davis to Los Angeles, for getting the campus off the ground.

"UC Davis has been a great big brother," she said. "They helped us in numerous ways such as getting our student information system and accounting system jump started."

Dar Hunter, the UC Davis associate director for undergraduate admission, says UC Davis helped Merced over the past two years set up a student information system. It is similar to one at UC Davis that handles admissions, registration, billing, accounts receivable, financial aid and graduate student data.

"They copied our program and then developed and customized it for their needs," she said. "It was a collaborative effort."

One challenge, Hunter says, was that Merced had to quickly develop its own student information policies while concurrently building its software program. UC Davis already had those policies in place before setting up the system in the early 1990s.

For Hunter, it was a labor-intensive experience. "We did our full-time jobs here at UC Davis while spending time helping them as well," said Hunter, who actually spent a week at Merced advising them on the system, known as Banner. Every year upgrades become available for the student information system. "We are a permanent, lifetime partner with UC Merced."

UC Davis also provided input on maintenance and police service issues, said UC Merced's Desrochers. Beyond Davis, UCLA offered expertise on financial systems and UC San Francisco offered help on fire marshal services, to note just two examples of many acts of Merced support from sister UC campuses.

Kent Kuo, the UC Merced registrar, said that many of the university's faculty and staff are also from other UCs. For example, UC Merced's first police chief, Rita Spauer, was hired away from the UC Davis police force. And its founding chancellor, Carol Tomlinson-Keasey, is a former UC Davis vice provost for academic planning and personnel and a former dean in the College of Letters and Science.

"UC Merced would not even have been possible," Kuo said, "without the gracious dedication that has been shown within the UC system as a whole."

Opportunities, challenges

As the first students set foot on campus, the expectation is that UC Merced will benefit the economy and expand college opportunities in the San Joaquin Valley, an area that has historically weathered high unemployment and low higher education rates. Built to address the surging college enrollments throughout California, Merced also has a particular regional focus.

Tomlinson-Keasey says, "Establishing the UC's newest campus in Merced removes this geographic and cultural barrier to educational access at the same time that it provides another outlet to students throughout California."

Indeed, about half of Merced's 1,000 new students are the first in their families to attend college. Nearly 25 percent report annual family incomes below $30,000, and approximately one third are from underrepresented ethnic or racial minority groups.

Those students will begin creating their own futures this fall. Merced will offer undergraduate degrees in nine majors from three disciplines – engineering; natural sciences; and social sciences, humanities and the arts. Graduate degrees in these same fields also are available. Degree offerings will increase as the university grows.

The university now taking shape on a former golf course near Lake Yosemite is projected to accommodate 5,000 students by 2010 and 25,000 students by 2035.

'Live close to the land'

UC Merced has been in the pipeline since 1988, when the UC regents first proposed adding a 10th campus to the system. Merced was chosen as the site in 1995 after a screening process that included more than 80 locations in the San Joaquin Valley. Construction began in late 2002.

The university, however, was not always an easy sell. Initially, some of the other nine UC campuses were cool to the idea of further splitting state funding with yet another campus. And then the recent budget shortfalls delayed the school's opening by a year.

"California's well-documented political and economic travails of recent years have made the task infinitely more difficult," said Tomlinson-Keasey.

"No one could have foreseen the near-collapse of the state economy, the worst budget crisis in state history, the gubernatorial recall or the legislative battles over the allocation of suddenly scarce resources," she added.

On top of this, environmental challenges to campus construction nearly derailed the project. As it turned out, the university could not build upon the land originally selected for the campus site — the wetlands site was home to a rare species of fairy shrimp.

Eventually, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation acquired other property for the university and secured the original site to protect it from development.

Tomlinson-Keasey vows that UC Merced will be a leader in "green construction" and will set an example for other institutions in how they can "live close to the land."

Inspiring, innovative

As her focus shifts from building a campus to building a faculty, Tomlinson-Keasey notes that $15 million in research grant money is already earmarked for UC Merced professors — and that is a good sign, she says, of intellectual explorations to unfold.

One of those new hires is Anne Myers Kelley, a professor of the natural sciences who left a job at Kansas State University. "The most inspiring thing has been working with colleagues who were willing to give up secure, tenured positions at established, high-quality institutions to build a brand new university from the ground up," Kelley said.

When she accepted her position, Kelley was among the first professors to set up labs and experiments at former military offices converted into laboratories while construction proceeds on the campus. "No shops, stockrooms or central instrumentation facilities," she said. "It felt like being given some money and told to build a state-of-the-art laser lab in one's garage."

In securing the first National Science Foundation grant for a Merced faculty member, Kelley said she faced obstacles. "Getting the paperwork done to convince the bureaucrats that UC Merced really does exist and can accept federal funds was not trivial."

She says students and parents expect that the small class sizes and faculty-to-student ratios will be an advantage for Merced.

A special process

Jan Goggans, an English faculty member at Merced and a UC Davis alumna, says a spirit of innovation pervades the campus. "The initial attraction for faculty really is the chance to do research and publication in ways that no one has before."

Traditional departments, says Goggans, typically provide much support, but they can also be "very restrictive."

She says the rest of the UC system has been supportive of the emerging Merced campus. One of those mentors was Jack Hicks, a senior lecturer in the UC Davis English department.

To Hicks, establishing a university is a special process. "I can't imagine starting a university from scratch," he said. "It would be rather like having the first human baby. The early stages would be fun, but when the thing finally decided to come out, another matter."

Media contact(s)

Clifton B. Parker, Dateline, (530) 752-1932,