Our View: UC Merced needs to be free to grow

May 11, 2013 

In almost every regard, the University of California at Merced has lived up to or passed expectations. It's giving hundreds of valley students an opportunity for higher education, many of them the first in their family to attend college. It is a model of environmental sustainability, with its buildings earning awards for its green technology features. Professors are involved in research on cutting-edge topics, from solar energy advancements to stem cell biology.

More than 5,700 undergraduates and graduate students are on campus this year. The largest graduating class, of 900 students, will cross the stage next weekend. The class is large enough that commencement was divided into two ceremonies.

More than 17,000 students applied for admission for the coming school year; UC Merced will have room for about 1,600. And like their predecessors, they are likely to make up one of the most diverse student bodies in the country.

UC Merced is growing faster in people and programs than it is in facilities. Chancellor Dorothy Leland says that enrollment growth will stall starting in 2016 without new facilities. And it's hard and time-consuming to get new buildings approved and built at all the state universities these days.

So Leland and some of her top executives will appear before the UC Board of Regents this coming week asking to amend the campus' long-range development plan. Using some recommendations from an Urban Land Institute study, they will propose condensing the campus from a projected 355 acres to 182, reducing the roads and other infrastructure needed, and planning buildings with mixed uses — classroom, office, research labs, perhaps on top of retail stores.

The change wouldn't be just in what is built where, but how to pay for it. Instead of relying on traditional state financing, much of it through bonds, Leland is proposing that UC Merced work with a private sector developer and look for some creative private-public financing approaches to try to get the buildings completed more quickly.

An aggressive schedule suggests that construction on mixed-use buildings might begin in summer 2014.

Just what would this project look like? It's hard to say. A number of public universities partner with businesses for things like operating the bookstore or operating food service. Many older universities also have retail outlets on or very near the campuses. We have several initial thoughts:

• The campus needs to grow to continue serving the valley and the whole state. A flat line in enrollment will not be good for the valley's health. If this is the way to allow the campus to grow, it should be supported.

• The idea of constructing a cluster of facilities rather than just one at a time makes sense, both economically and logistically.

• There were numerous environmental concerns about how the campus was placed on its site. We would hope that condensing its size would reduce any environmental disruptions or objections.

• While having retail stores on campus might reduce students patronizing other Merced businesses, that loss could be offset by the proposal to have a major administrative center — housing support staff and various nonclassroom functions — in downtown Merced. Currently 300 people work away from the main campus; Leland said that number could double by 2020, with most of them at the downtown center.

• Merced has enough of a downtown arts scene that students will continue to be drawn there even if they can shop on campus.

• Universities are supposed to be hothouses for innovation, so we aren't surprised that there is some out-of-the- box ideas for financing and building new campus facilities. Of course creative financing arrangements with business partners need to be carefully vetted and consistently tracked to assure that taxpayers are getting the most for their money.

• That said, we hesitate to use terms like "cost savings" when talking about projects of this size, especially given that UC doesn't do anything on the cheap, whether it's in buildings or day-to-day costs. UC is a welcome addition to the valley, but we aren't the only ones who recognize that its salaries and benefits far exceed those of private sector employers. For example, in 2011, UC Merced had 105 administrators and faculty making more than $100,000 a year.

Nonetheless, the bottom line is that having a research university in our midst has been a major plus for the Northern San Joaquin Valley. It is encouraging students not only to go to a four-year campus but to major in science, technology, engineering or math — the disciplines most needed for our country to remain competitive globally.

We support the concept of allowing it to continue to grow and mature, and hope that the regents will endorse Chancellor Leland's proposal.

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