Dorothy Leland: UC Merced -- Growing a campus when the economy is shrinking

UC Merced finds ways to accommodate more students

January 18, 2013 

In September of last year I wrote an open letter to the Merced community, published in this newspaper, about the rapid enrollment growth we've experienced at UC Merced and the challenges we face adding facilities to accommodate that growth in today's economic climate.

I explained that we'd be working with the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit organization specializing in land-use planning, to help us find creative ways to add physical capacity more rapidly and cost-effectively in the near term.

I am pleased to provide an update on this initiative and some preliminary insights into how we expect to orchestrate our expansion while building a closer relationship with the Merced community.

First, let me say how pleased we are with campus development to date. In just 10 years since initial groundbreaking, UC Merced has emerged as an attractive, innovative campus widely recognized for its environmental sustainability and physical beauty.

Student applications for admission continue to grow sharply. With more than 5,700 students already enrolled, we are "bursting at the seams" and need to plan now for the steady construction of additional classrooms, research labs, student support space, and faculty and administrative staff offices to reach our near-term enrollment goal of 10,000.

The challenge we face in adding capacity is largely a result of the state's prolonged economic slowdown. This has made it more difficult to secure funds for the construction of new buildings and related projects, such as infrastructure development. Right now, and probably for the next few years at least, we simply can't count on the state to provide funding at the rate we had anticipated.

Fortunately, ULI has developed several excellent proposals that will allow us to sustain enrollment growth during these uncertain times. Among them are:

Making more efficient use of remaining undeveloped land on our original 104-acre "golf course" plot. This might include converting existing parking lots into buildable land, designing taller structures with multiple uses, increasing the efficiency of existing facilities, and clustering academic and research facilities more effectively while relocating the bulk of our administrative operations off campus.

Consolidating off-campus administrative operations into fewer locations, where greater efficiency, teamwork and economies of scale can be realized. While it's too early to say what specific locations might be considered for lease, purchase or construction, we believe this action, if taken, will strengthen our presence within the city and help boost the local economy as more of our employees frequent area businesses.

Developing more comprehensive off-campus housing solutions for our growing student population. While we continue to add housing units on campus, capacity constraints mean that many of our students will continue to live off campus. Accordingly, we intend to explore off-campus housing options through potential building acquisitions, construction or lease arrangements that create a greater sense of community and provide better amenities for our student population.

Working more with private investors to encourage greater financial flexibility and lower the overall cost of development. These public-private partnerships have been shown to work very effectively in university settings and should allow us to build more rapidly and efficiently than using traditional state financing.

Strengthening communication and collaboration with the Merced community to ensure better understanding of mutual interests and a closer working relationship as the campus expands. Our somewhat remote location has hindered this process more than we would like. We'll be looking to work more closely with city and county officials as our plans evolve and, as space becomes available, to hold more community events on campus.

The UC Merced leadership team is evaluating these proposals to assess how well they support our near- term growth objectives as well as our long-term enrollment goal of 25,000 students at full build-out.

Some ideas may require modifications to our long-range development plan and approval by the UC Office of the President and Board of Regents. Others can be implemented quickly. In view of fast-growing student demand for admission to UC Merced, we intend to expedite this process.

Our community receives direct economic benefits from ongoing capital construction at UC Merced, and I am committed to the continued growth of the UC Merced campus even under current challenging circumstances.

We are confident that any suggestions we implement will further the mission of the university while strengthening the local economy, increasing college-going rates within the San Joaquin Valley and helping to reverse high rates of poverty and chronic unemployment. We deeply appreciate the community's understanding and support as we work through this next phase of our growth.

Leland is chancellor of UC Merced.

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