Former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano paid a visit Thursday to the University of California at Merced.
Now in her first week as president of the UC system, Napolitano met with the chancellor, faculty, students and staff at UC Merced, the system’s youngest and smallest campus.
The school was the first stop on Napolitano’s tour of the 10-campus system.
“I came here first because this campus, I think, is just really important for the UC system as a whole, but it’s also important for the valley here and the state,” Napolitano, said during a short interview with assembled media.
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UC Merced officials announced this week that the school had surpassed the 6,000-student mark. With campus growth has come pressure for more classroom and research facilities.
Since 2005, the university has had several years of fast-paced growth, but officials expect the growth to slow so that the facilities can catch up.
The campus is also seen as a chance to give San Joaquin Valley students access to the UC system, the largest higher education system in the country.
“We want to do everything that we can to not only make sure that it succeeds but it thrives,” Napolitano said, adding that the campus is probably the most diverse in the system. “So, we’ll be looking at all kinds of things to make sure we carry forward with the grand tradition that the UC has.”
Of Merced’s undergraduate population, 62 percent are first-generation students, and an equal percentage are federal Pell Grant-eligible – the largest percentage within the UC system.
Steve Montiel, media relations director for Napolitano, said the UC system president arrived in Merced on Wednesday evening and dropped by a biology class, which, because of the high demand for space on campus, begins at 9:15 p.m.
“It gave her a sense of how late students have to work, because there is not enough space,” Montiel said. “It gave her an appreciation for the 2020 plan and the need for more resources.”
The school has a goal to hit 10,000 students, with 1,000 of them at the graduate level, by 2020. Montiel said Napolitano supports that plan.
Officials have proposed consolidating some of the university’s support staff to a single downtown Merced location, reducing travel and public safety costs. The roughly 1,000 staff members could double as the university grows.
The plan would also call for a cluster of buildings to go up at the same time to save construction costs. The buildings would be taller than originally planned, and each would have several purposes.
Patti Waid, UC Merced spokeswoman, said it’s important the campus sees support from Napolitano.
“As the smallest campus, we need more support from the UC office of the president than perhaps larger, more established campuses do,” Waid said. “Establishing that rapport and that level of collaboration is very important.”
UC Merced Chancellor Dorothy Leland, in a short interview, said she is “delighted” with the new president.
“I’m convinced even more now that she will be a great leader for the University of California,” Leland said, “and a great supporter of this campus and region.”
Jennifer Anaya, an economics major, said she was one of the select group of students and student leaders chosen to meet with Napolitano for about an hour. A UC Merced administrator invited her to take part, she said.
One major topic of discussion, Anaya said, was rising tuition. She said Napolitano indicated she was looking into it.
Anaya said she is optimistic about what Napolitano can do for the system.
“She was very open to a lot of different opinions, and seeing what the students think,” the 20-year-old said. “I could tell she was here to listen and to learn.”