In UC Merced’s first 10 years, the once-fledgling campus has gone from a few buildings near a cow pasture to about 1 million square feet of classrooms, research laboratories, offices and student housing.
The campus is behind on its initial projections for enrollment, which were affected by several years of a difficult state economy and space constraints. UC Merced had an enrollment of 6,268 last year, when the campus originally expected to enroll 8,136, according to its Long Range Development Plan.
University officials maintain that the campus is on target and meeting its goals to provide Valley students nearby access to a world-class research university.
“We are educating a significant number of students from the San Joaquin Valley,” Chancellor Dorothy Leland said. “And many of them come from first-generation, low-income and minority families. Those are precisely the students who didn’t have access to the University of California before this campus was built.”
About 68 percent of last year’s incoming class were the first in their families to go to college. More than 60 percent come from low-income families, university officials have reported.
The campus’s relatively small size, when compared with enrollments at other University of California campuses, has given its students a hand in molding the school, said Charles Nies, interim vice chancellor for student affairs.
Many of them come from first-generation, low-income and minority families. Those are precisely the students who didn’t have access to the University of California before this campus was built.
Chancellor Dorothy Leland
Nies said that intimacy has helped make the campus attractive to students. UC Merced’s 19,932 undergraduate applications for this school year were the most ever in the school’s 10-year history and reflect a 14 percent increase over the previous year’s total, according to numbers from the UC Office of the President.
Nies said the percentage of applications to the UC system from San Joaquin Valley students has more than doubled, from 3 percent to 7 percent, since UC Merced opened.
The school’s presence has some part in that increase, he said. “To me that’s a big part of our role here,” he said.
Expanding Valley education
The university opened its doors just outside Merced on Sept. 5, 2005, and had many in the city and the San Joaquin Valley hoping that it would improve the education of young people in the region.
Daniel Kazakos, president of the Merced Main Street Association, said he remembers not believing rumors that Merced was in the running for the 10th campus in the statewide system.
“To me that was so far-fetched, that the University of California would be here,” he said.
But after the final announcement was made, he said, the city finally got to “the gold at the end of the rainbow.” He said the Merced area needed a shot in the arm to bounce back from the closure of Castle Air Force Base in 1995.
The most noticeable difference from a decade ago, he said, is the presence of young people. Merced was always a place that high school graduates looked to get away from, he said, but now thousands of young people come into town to go to school.
Bob Carpenter, 73, a retiree, jumped on the bandwagon early to push for the campus to come to town. He said many residents doubted Merced was even in the running for a new campus.
$180 million What UC Merced has spent on its research efforts
The changes to the city have been small but changes nonetheless, he said, pointing to a downtown that tries to pull in a younger crowd than in decades past. “I think it’s a gradual, long-term sort of thing,” he said about economic growth.
The university certainly has impacted Merced’s economy. About 63 percent of the campus’s faculty live in Merced County, and 17 percent live in neighboring counties, according to numbers from UC Merced.
Those are people paying taxes and shopping in the region that likely would not have been a decade ago. “The bottom line is most people that are coming here are trying to find a place to live in Merced,” Provost Tom Peterson said about faculty and administrators.
The campus has also spent more than $180 million on its research efforts, with the highest single year of grants ($20 million) coming last year. Some of that research happens locally and some out of the area, Peterson said, but the majority of the materials are purchased in the region.
“The humanities and social sciences are also doing groundbreaking research that may not require that large an investment,” he said. “As we look at the dollar amounts that will continue to increase, that’s not the only indicator of our research success.”
Benefits beyond the economy
The school’s attempts to collaborate locally are perhaps another measure. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching presented the university with the 2015 Community Engagement Classification for its attempts to collaborate with the city’s businesses, schoolchildren and health providers, among others.
The university has worked locally to study Valley Fever, childhood obesity and environmental sustainability, to name a few efforts.
Martha Conklin, an engineering professor whose work focuses on studying water, was one of the first 13 faculty members hired by the university before there was even a campus. She came to Merced from Arizona State University’s hydrology program, the first in the nation, according to that university.
Ten years ago, you would have to leave the area. For a lot of students, that’s not always an option.
Kayla Canelo, Atwater native, UC Merced graduate student
She said many faculty and students have been attracted to the school because of its “pioneering spirit,” including being on the ground floor of a new endeavor. The university is still shaping many of its schools and focusing on interdisciplinary studies, which makes it unlike other UC campuses.
For students such as Kayla Canelo, 27, from Atwater, having a research university in her backyard was something of a game-changer. The political science student got her four-year degree from California State University, Stanislaus, but said graduate school would have been out of the question without UC Merced on the table.
Living in an affordable community with family support made her pursuit of a doctorate achievable. “Ten years ago, you would have to leave the area,” the first-generation college student said. “For a lot of students, that’s not always an option.”
Enrollment outpaces infrastructure
UC Merced officials say the only thing holding enrollment growth back is the speed at which buildings can go up. Though the number of applications coming in continues to boom, enrollment has only crept up in the last year.
UC Merced officials say that the only thing holding enrollment growth back is the speed at which buildings can go up.
The university expects to continue to see relatively small increases in student population until 2016, when Classroom and Office Building 2 is expected to be finished. The university is also looking to find a development team that will help plan the campus’s growth through the 2020 Project, when the campus wants to reach an enrollment of 10,000.
Dan Feitelberg, vice chancellor of planning and budget, said the university continues to work out the kinks with city leaders. The two groups have not come to an agreement on how to provide infrastructure for the next phase of the building.
“That still does remain an outstanding item,” he said. “We will need to finalize that document in order to move forward with the project.”
The university is also working on erecting its Downtown Center, though that building is not technically part of the 2020 Project. The 67,400 square feet of office space for more than 350 employees could help further intertwine downtown Merced with the university, officials have said.
Steady growth expected
The 10th anniversary also marks the first year that the UC Merced Venture Lab will be in operation. The 5,951 square feet of offices is a business incubator meant to help students turn their ideas into businesses, said Peter Schuerman, associate vice chancellor for research and economic development.
He said colleges traditionally show students how to find a good job or go on to graduate school, but the lab serves as a third option for students to make their own business. “If the students don’t realize that is one of their options, we’re not giving them the full spectrum,” he said.
Though startups commonly fail, he said, nurturing them creates a more fertile environment for industries in general.
Merced Mayor Stan Thurston said the Venture Lab has the potential to invigorate the city’s economy. But he said he would like to see the city, the university, county officials and others strengthen their collaborations.
He said he’s heard detractors complain that the university hasn’t changed the city faster but said the majority of people understand they need to be patient.
In the meantime, he said, the retail and rental revenue that faculty and students generate is a benefit to Merced – not to mention the number of hours students spend volunteering at schools or during special projects.
As the school moves into its 2020 Project, he said, the interest is increasing fundraising from investors for projects that will support the university and students. “That’s fairly new,” he said. “Up till now it’s been a kind of waiting game.”
Leland said many of the university’s successes owe thanks to a supportive Merced community. “Keep the faith,” she said. “We are working as hard and smartly as we can to continue to fill the promise of this university.”
The Modesto Bee’s Karen Aiello contributed to this report.
UC Merced Timeline
1988 UC regents authorize planning for additional campus or campuses based on projections of long-range enrollment demand.
May 1995 University of California regents overwhelmingly endorse locating a 10th campus at Lake Yosemite in Merced County.
July 1996 Merced officials and UC representatives meet in Merced to sign a document giving the university a 15-year option on 2,550 acres of range land near Lake Yosemite for the new campus. The property is being carved out of the 7,000-acre Virginia Smith educational trust as a gift to UC.
October 1996 UC picks the Merced College campus for a first-of-its-kind UC satellite center at a community college. The new office will serve as a base for UC information officers, counselors and staff members planning the new UC Merced campus.
July 1997 UC regents approve a special committee to oversee issues regarding development of the campus.
December 1997 UC officials announce that University of California, Merced, is the official name of the 10th University of California campus.
April 1998 Carol Tomlinson-Keasey is named senior associate for UC Merced, giving her the distinction of being the campus’s first official hired hand. Tomlinson-Keasey will serve as the academic leader of campus development and oversee the addition of new educational services in the San Joaquin Valley, including expansion of UC extension classes.
November 1998 UC Merced opens an office at the Olivepark complex at 1170 W. Olive in Merced. The office will serve as the hub for UC Merced planning.
March 1999 UC Merced joins with Merced College and California State University, Stanislaus, in establishing the Tri-College Center at Merced College. Hal Favier, a Merced resident, and six others make history enrolling in an agricultural class, the first class offered by UC Merced. The class meets in the Tri-College Center.
1999 State voters approve Proposition 1A, a general obligation bond measure, which includes $55 million in initial capital funding for the construction of UC Merced.
July 1999 Carol Tomlinson-Keasey is appointed the first chancellor.
October 1999 Carol Tomlinson-Keasey moves the chancellor’s office to Merced.
May 2000 Carol Tomlinson-Keasey announces the selection of the school’s mascot as the Golden Bobcats. The name is selected in a contest that solicited name suggestions from schoolchildren. Ten-year-old Lisa Lopez of Delhi, a fifth-grader at Livingston Middle School, wins the contest and with it a full-ride scholarship to UC Merced.
June 2004 UC Merced opens the first of its three planned field stations in the Sierra Nevada. The Yosemite Field Station, a roughly 1,400-square-foot station, is expected to open in early August.
November 2004 UC Merced starts accepting applications for fall 2005 admission.
February 2005 Prospective freshmen and transfer applicants applicants for the fall semester at UC Merced number 8,883.
March 2005 Rita Spaur, interim chief at Davis, accepts an offer to become UC Merced’s first police chief.
April 2005 First “Bobcat Day” brings hundreds of prospective students and their parents to get a glimpse of the first UC campus to open in 40 years.
September 2005 About 585 of the 1,000 students who make up UC Merced’s inaugural class move into campus housing.
September 2005 UC Merced officially opens on Labor Day.
December 2005 UC Merced’s Bobcat Bookstore holds its grand opening.
May 2006 UC Merced celebrates its first three graduates.
August 2006 Carol Tomlinson-Keasey resigns as chancellor and takes a sabbatical to work on a book chronicling the opening of UC Merced.
September 2006 Roderic Park is appointed as interim chancellor of UC Merced.
November 2006 UC Merced’s gymnasium, the Joseph Edward Gallo Recreation and Wellness Center, opens for use and the university announces that club teams in baseball, soccer and aquatics (swimming and water polo) have been recognized and will start competing this spring.
January 2007 Sung-Mo “Steve” Kang is unanimously appointed by the University of California regents as UC Merced’s newest chancellor. He begins his new position in March.
May 2007 The Federal Highway Administration approves a four-lane expressway that will connect Highway 99 to the campus.
May 2007 UC Merced’s second commencement celebrates 75 graduates.
May 2008 UC Merced officials receive a thumbs-up from the Board of Regents to continue their ongoing plans to establish a medical school.
May 2009 First lady Michelle Obama delivers the commencement keynote address when more than 500 Bobcats graduate as the school’s inaugural class.
May 2010 UC Merced is designated a Hispanic-serving institution under the guidelines of the U.S. Department of Education.
February 2011 UC Merced unveils its cutting-edge stem cell research facility, the Stem Cell Instrumentation Foundry.
June 2011 Sung-Mo “Steve” Kang resigns as chancellor.
July 2011 Dorothy Leland begins her position as the third chancellor of UC Merced.
July 2011 UC Merced announces the hiring of its first head coaches as an NAIA-sanctioned institution.
April 2012 UC Merced creates a mobile phone app, the UC Merced Admissions App, which offers information about the university.
May 2013 UC Merced holds two graduation ceremonies as a result of having the largest class in its history.
November 2013 UC Merced launches a semiannual magazine meant to educate the greater Central Valley about the university’s level of research.
December 2014 UC Merced holds a “topping” ceremony of the $54 million Classroom and Office Building 2, what will be a 77,000-square-foot structure featuring the newest in educational technology, scheduled to open in April 2016. The building is the final structure to be built during UC Merced’s first phase of development.