Chancellor: A big year for UC Merced

08/22/2014 11:32 PM

08/22/2014 11:34 PM

Classes resume at UC Merced on Thursday for what could be a very important year for the university that wants to reach its 10,000 students benchmark by 2020, according to the chancellor.

Dorothy Leland said several decisions will be made this year that will guide UC Merced’s enrollment growth through the 2020 Project, which aims to prepare the campus for its enrollment goal.

Getting the campus built remains the biggest challenge for the university, which has had to slow its intake of new students to wait for construction. “It’s been the main challenge I’ve faced since I got here,” she said.

The 2020 Project goal is an ambitious one, Leland said, because the idea is to include 1,000 graduate students in the enrollment. Attracting graduate-level professors and students is a significantly more competitive game than the undergraduate counterpart, she said.

The university will also need to pick a partner this year from the six teams that submitted qualified bids to plan for UC Merced’s expansion. The coming project will develop up to 1.85 million square feet of new teaching, research and residential space on the 219-acre, university-owned site that includes the existing campus.

“This will be the year we begin the planning and design for our downtown building,” she said. “It will be the year in which we complete our academic strategic focusing and our 2020 staffing plan. So there’s just a lot in both the planning of the campus through 2020 and making it happen.”

In June, the university announced that it will build an office structure across the street from City Hall. The university intends to move a number of classified staff to that spot, which would free up room on the main campus.

The 0.85-acre lot cost the university $630,000 and further connects the city and UC Merced. After it is chosen, the strategic partner will help the city decide how many staff members will be housed downtown.

Having more people within walking distance of Main Street could be good for business owners. Many businesses in town already look forward to the return of thousands of students.

Oscar Torres, co-owner of J&R Tacos, said business during the school year is up about 50 percent compared with the summer. “We see the sales start increasing when the students come to town for both Merced College and the UC,” he said.

Frank Quintero, economic development director for the city of Merced, said the benefits reach far beyond downtown. Big-box stores see college students and their families as the school year approaches, and the rental market tightens when students come back to town.

Though the 10,000 student enrollment is a few years off, Leland said, the looming school year will reach its own benchmark.

The incoming class is also the university’s 10th. “That’s quite a milestone,” Leland said. “I think it will provide a chance for everybody to look back, take a deep breath and really marvel at how far we’ve been able come.”

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