UC Merced chancellor chats on past and future challenges

October 23, 2012 

UC Merced Chancellor Dorothy Leland responded recently to questions about the creation of the 10th University of California campus in Merced and its development during the past decade. Her comments come as the university celebrates Founders Day on Thursday, marking the 10th anniversary of the groundbreaking for what is today UC Merced.

Question: What was the biggest impediment to getting UC Merced built and how was that overcome?

Answer: It took nearly two decades to go through the process of evaluating 85 potential sites up and down the valley, picking a winner, obtaining funding, acquiring the land and securing the necessary permits to build the 10th UC campus (the first one in 40 years) here in Merced. We couldn't have done it without the remarkable collective effort and inspired leadership of community members, civic leaders, elected officials, donors and our founding chancellor, Carol Tomlinson-Keasey.

Q: Looking at the campus today, what's been the most surprising thing about its growth and development?

A: Having been here a little more than a year, I have come to grasp the extraordinary dedication and effort of our faculty and staff to build a public research-based university during the toughest economic climate the country has seen since the Great Depression. With scarce resources and wide-ranging and often competing demands, they remain committed to building world-class academic and research programs and to attracting an impressive cadre of students from throughout the state.

Q: With the campus at nearly 6,000 students, what's the next big challenge for the development of the university?

A: Academically, we need to identify which of our research areas and graduate programs have the greatest potential to bring distinction to the university and begin making strategic investments in them. Operationally, we need to determine the most cost-effective and programmatically viable alternatives for expanding our physical capacity during a period of ongoing financial uncertainty at the state level.

Q: Considering the premium on space at the site and tough state budgets, what's the chance UC Merced will look to expand to different sites and vacant facilities in the county to accommodate its expansion needs?

A: There's a very good chance. In addition to maximizing the use of buildable land on our current footprint, we will also consider off-campus options as we seek to accommodate a projected enrollment of 10,000 students, along with the requisite numbers of faculty and staff, over the next eight to 10 years.

Q: Because the university is so far from the city, there seems to be a big disconnect between the two. Is that your sense and what is the campus doing to forge a stronger bond with the community?

A: While the lack of physical proximity can contribute to a sense of disconnection, the relationship will definitely grow stronger as we begin to locate more employees into the city. For example, developing facilities for administrative staff and service and outreach functions downtown will help invigorate the downtown economy and increase the sense of shared benefit that's been difficult to achieve from our remote location.

Q: Is having a strong bond really all that important? Or is it something that has to develop organically, over time?

A: It's extremely important, particularly in a smaller city such as Merced where the two are so inextricably linked. I would like UC Merced to be seen as a cultural, economic, intellectual and social asset to the community that welcomed us here. The community is already benefiting from expanded offerings in performing arts, academic lectures, sporting events -- to name a few. Just as important, our employees and students are serving on nonprofit boards, volunteering and serving the community in a wide variety of ways. This is the type of intellectual and cultural exchange that makes university towns some of the best places to live and work.

Q: Many say UC Merced's arrival will change the region significantly in many ways: academically, economically, medically and in terms of technology through its research. When will all that promise come to fruition?

A: The changes are already apparent. For example, we've invested more than $815 million into the regional economy since 2000. We've created thousands of jobs -- on campus, in construction, in service and support industries -- and those workers are spending locally and paying taxes locally. College-going rates among valley students are up dramatically since UC Merced opened in 2005, and our medical-education program is already in its second year. These and other contributions will only accelerate in the coming years.

Q: Can you talk a little about the mission of a University of California as a research institution and how that differs from other systems and colleges?

A: The valley already has several California State University campuses and community colleges that play a valuable role in higher education. What it has lacked is a UC campus that can apply its research prowess toward the pressing needs of the valley and help bring economic diversification and growth to the region. It is very much in the state's interest to see this transformation happen as quickly as possible. The valley is the fastest-growing region of the state, but it cannot realize its potential without significant increases in its college-going rates and commensurate reductions in its poverty and unemployment rates, which are the highest in the state. As this transformation gains momentum, research conducted at UC Merced will play an increasingly important role in bringing new business and industry to the region, particularly given the valley's lower cost structures.

Q: If there's one thing you could tell the readers about UC Merced that they don't know and might be surprised to learn, what would that be?

A: I think the public would be surprised to realize that of our 5,700 students, only 1,300 live on campus. In other words, more than 4,000 students live in the surrounding community, and more than half of our 1,100 employees live here, too, with their families. In a town the size of Merced, it's nearly impossible not to see someone from the campus at our local grocery and hardware stores, retail outlets and restaurants. In addition, like other community members, they tap into professional services including medical, insurance, legal, real estate and financial. All of this activity is helping to revive the local economy at a much faster rate than would otherwise be possible.

Q: Anything else?

A: Yes. I would like to thank everyone in the community for the hospitality and support you've provided to our students, employees and the university during our first 10 years, and reiterate my firm belief that the relationship will prove increasingly beneficial on both sides of the equation as time passes. We look forward to making the next 10 years as productive and enjoyable as possible with your continued support.

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