UC Merced founding chancellor Carol Tomlinson-Keasey dies

October 12, 2009 

The founding chancellor of UC Merced, Carol Tomlinson-Keasey, who saw the institution through its infancy, died Saturday of complications related to cancer, according to a statement from the university.

She was 66.

As the first chancellor of UC Merced from 1999 to 2006, Tomlinson-Keasey was the driving force behind creating a research university from scratch in a Valley woefully underserved by the UC system and higher education in general.

Tomlinson-Keasey watched over every step of the university's birthing pains from the campus' groundbreaking to the arrival of its first class. As a tireless champion of the university and its benefits to the San Joaquin Valley, Tomlinson-Keasey led the university as it faced off against state legislators opposed to the project, environmental lawsuits, federal regulators and local skeptics -- all the while fighting breast cancer.

"Simply put, UC Merced would not exist were it not for her visionary leadership, her tireless determination and her remarkable gift of persuasion," said UC Merced Chancellor Steve Kang in a statement after the announcement of her death.

In 1998, Tomlinson-Keasey was appointed to lead the planning efforts for UC Merced. At the time, she had been working in the UC president's office as vice provost for academic initiatives, according to a UC Merced representative.

Before her appointment, said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, there was no one in the UC system fighting for UC Merced. Cardoza and others knew that if they didn't have a chancellor for UC Merced its needs would be sidelined. "The challenge was that the other UCs didn't want to share resources. There was a new baby in the nest and the big birds didn't want to share with the little bird."

When then-UC President Richard Atkinson appointed Tomlinson-Keasey -- after some pressure from Cardoza and others -- she was not a popular choice. She had to little experience, said Cardoza. But she proved everyone wrong. "She was tough, she was tenacious, she was smart and she was terrific," he said.

When she first arrived, recalled Cardoza, she was only on assignment, doing her job. But she soon began to really care for the plight of the Valley, said Cardoza. "She really grew to understand how important this campus is to the Valley," he said. "She was committed to serving the diverse population that wasn't being served by the UC system."

In 1999, Tomlinson-Keasey was named UC Merced's founding chancellor but it wasn't until 2002 that ground was first broken at the future site of the university.

In October of that year, at the golden-shoveled groundbreaking ceremony, Tomlinson-Keasey told the gathered crowd why she believed in UC Merced. When the UC system opened up in 1868, she said, it was with the promise of making a university system for all, equal to the nation's best private universities. "Our new campus, UC Merced, will help keep the promise that California made to its citizens in 1868," she said that day, according to a story in the Sun-Star.

That day, Ben Duran, president of Merced College and part of the committee that chose Tomlinson-Keasey for the chancellor post, stated why she was chosen to lead the university. "We knew that with her at the helm, we would get this university built, in spite of ardent detractors and hurdles that at times seemed insurmountable," he said, according to a story in the Sun-Star.

Duran's words ended up being prophetic.

"I think she was given a once-in-a-lifetime task to take on a challenge and I think that was Carol's spirit," said Larry Salinas, associate vice chancellor for governmental relations at UC Merced. "The campus is her legacy."

Salinas, who was hired by Tomlinson-Keasey in 2000 as a liaison between lawmakers and UC Merced, said her task was not an easy one. From the start, she and her staff were beset on all sides, he said. The state repeatedly threatened to take away UC Merced's funding, the federal government's environmental regulations threatened to stall campus construction and a lawsuit filed by local environmentalist, which eventually failed, slowed the initial groundbreaking by several months.

"The biggest challenge was getting the buy-in on the vision from all the parties involved," Tomlinson-Keasey told the Fresno Bee in 2005. "I had to work harder than I had expected."

Indeed, the campus' scheduled 2004 opening was put off for a year because of budget woes in Sacramento.

Even after the funding came through in 2005 many legislators opposed UC Merced, said Salinas.

To counter pessimists, Tomlinson-Keasey traversed the state and used her passion and drive to convince those in Sacramento and Washington that UC Merced was a good thing, said Salinas.

She even faced off with state Senate Pro Tem John Burton, who was against the project. Salinas, who was at their half-hour 2004 meeting, told Tomlinson-Keasey if they got the whole half-hour and Burton didn't swear -- Burton used a lot of profanity -- then they would win, said Salinas. Burton only swore once and they got the whole half hour. Burton saw that Tomlinson-Keasey believed in UC Merced more than he opposed it, said Salinas. "He didn't stand in our way after that," said Salinas.

State legislators were not UC Merced's only opponents. Federal regulators also slowed the progress of the campus' expansion. It wasn't until 2009 that the university was finally given the go-ahead to expand from its original parameters. Along with these regulatory and financial obstacles many locals were still skeptical of the university. It took continued wooing from Tomlinson-Keasey to finally get them on board.

"I really thought this job was about academia," she told the Fresno Bee in 2005. "But I had to become a politician overnight."

As she faced off with state leaders and local opponents, she was battling breast cancer, said Salinas. She missed one work day a week for her chemotherapy, he recalled.

In 2006, a year after the university opened its doors to the first class of 1,000, she stepped down from her position as chancellor.

"Together we have founded a university that will endure. I take pride in what we have created together and smile at the generations of students who will grow intellectually and socially on our campus," she wrote at the time. "I think of a growing campus that will power the regional economy and provide an enviable quality of life to our community. All of this will follow from our efforts."

Born in Washington, D.C., Tomlinson-Keasey received her bachelor of arts degree in political science from Penn State University, a master's degree in psychology from Iowa State University and a doctorate in developmental psychology from UC Berkeley. She was the author of three books and numerous articles.

She is survived by her husband, Dr. Blake Keasey, two grown children and three grandchildren.

Reporter Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at (209) 385-2484 or jlamb@mercedsun-star.com.