UC Merced leaders broke out the obligatory golden shovels to mark the beginning of what has been hailed as a $1.3 billion project that will transform the campus and the surrounding community.
The University of California system’s youngest campus was the first stop in 2013 for then-new President Janet Napolitano, she reminded the crowd gathered in the school’s South Bowl on Friday. The large grassy field where the university has held its graduation ceremonies will make way for the doubling of the campus and its growing enrollment.
“The project shows how we can expand access to public research universities at a time of reduced capital investment not only in California but in states across the country,” she said. “It’s a public-private partnership that will result in a blend of living and learning, and labs that will combine multiple disciplines.”
The method is unusual because the university deals with a single entity through a public-private partnership for decades, which officials say has never been used on such a large project. University leaders announced in June that the contract had been awarded to a consortium led by the Plenary Group, an international developer and investor.
The project shows how we can expand access to public research universities at a time of reduced capital investment not only in California but in states across the country.
Janet Napolitano, president of University of California system
Standing in the grassy field Friday was Jane Lawrence, who joined the university as vice chancellor of student services in October 2001. She retired a few months ago.
She said an “amazing” amount of work went into changing the campus from what it was in 2001.
“This was still the Merced Hills Golf Course,” she said. “At that point, we had no faculty, no buildings and, of course, no students.”
The campus of what is now about 6,700 students is expected to grow to make room for 10,000 by 2020. Lawrence said as the campus adds educational space and professors, more students will have the opportunity to participate in research.
Having a growing college in their backyard could be good for Merced County and central San Joaquin Valley schoolchildren, according to deputy Superintendent Steve Tietjen of the Merced County Office of Education. Tietjen, who was in the audience, takes over as superintendent in January.
“Students who don’t have parents with college backgrounds need to have a vision,” he said. “They need to see it.”
Students in the region often visit the campus on field trips or through educational programs, he noted.
This was still the Merced Hills Golf Course. At that point, we had no faculty, no buildings and, of course, no students.
Jane Lawrence, retired vice chancellor, about the campus in 2001
UC Merced Chancellor Dorothy Leland noted the school’s demographics. UC Merced outpaces all other UC campuses in drawing applicants who are low-income and those who are first-generation students, meaning neither of their parents earned a four-year college degree.
“The Merced 2020 Project brings tremendous economic growth and allows UC Merced to further fulfill its promise to bring interdisciplinary learning and cutting-edge research opportunities to one of our state’s most rapidly growing regions,” she said.
While much of the ceremony was about celebration and handing out thank-yous, it was not all smiles and handshakes. Several dozen students interrupted Leland while chanting, “We deserve dignity and respect.” Some held signs, including one that read, “We are done being your profit.”
The protesters called for more cultural resources, better retention rates, extra recruiting efforts and other demands for marginalized groups.