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UC Merced chancellor's hard work pays off

Editor's note: This story was first published in the Modesto Bee on August 31, 2005.

Even the briefest meeting with Carol Tomlinson-Keasey leaves no doubt: She knows where her talents lie, what she wants and how to get things done.

She'd better.

"There's no road map for this," said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced. "They're building a university from scratch, and she's had to change the recipe a few times, too."

Living on five hours' sleep a night, working at her office in downtown Merced long after many other staff members have gone home, the chancellor of the University of California at Merced is getting ready to welcome the 1,000 students who make up the school's pioneer class.

She has been researching beginnings of other campuses and writing the speech she'll deliver to the students, families, community members and dignitaries who show up on Labor Day to help celebrate.

Although she has been chancellor for six years, the day classes start will be a beginning for her, too.

And a victory.

"I'm proud, but not surprised," Tomlinson-Keasey's daughter, Amber Peters, 32, said of her mother's success. "I always knew she could do anything she wanted."

The road to opening day has been long and sometimes bumpy, from site changes because of environmental concerns to funding problems that altered the university's opening date.

But Tomlinson-Keasey never doubted the school would live and breathe.

"That's just not the type of person I am, I suppose," she said.


Here's a subject that probably interests the psychologist in Tomlinson-Keasey: Genetics vs. environment.

She is who she is because of both.

Tomlinson-Keasey probably inhabits the "gifted" category on any intelligence chart. She holds a Ph.D. in developmental psychology, is a licensed psychologist and a published author. She was a professor before she got into university administration, has been a lecturer at honors seminars and was named the University of California at Riverside's Distinguished Teacher of the Year for 1984-85.

She was born at Walter Reed Hospital, the military medical center in Washington, D.C., to an Army family. She attended grade school in Japan for a time and spent part of high school in France.

Tomlinson-Keasey's mother graduated from college, a relatively rare achievement at the time, then became a home economics teacher, Peters said.

And Tomlinson-Keasey's father, an electrical engineer, understood the challenges his daughter faced.

Her report cards featured comments from teachers such as, "Carol's very smart," Peters said. They also had comments including "Carol talks too much."

But there's another component to her mother's personality, Peters said: She grew up a tomboy with three brothers.

"That helped make her competitive and feisty," Peters said. "Anything they could do, she could do better.

"When she takes the time to do it, there's nothing she doesn't do well."

Tomlinson-Keasey is a list maker, Peters said, using legal pads to detail different obligations -- one for things to do at home, one for work and another at times when she was working on books or articles.

She's an expert baker of chocolate chip cookies, sewed a pretty pink dress for her daughter's eighth-grade graduation, ran a Girl Scout troop and shared in her children's school activities.


And education is in her blood.

Peters said she remembers going to the beach with her mother. Instead of sunbathing, they were off in the tide pools.

"We were picking up slimy things and she had this book so she could look up everything we found," said Peters, a marine biologist who lives in Michigan.

Family vacations most often took the Keaseys to places like Europe, Egypt, the Maldives and Fiji. The chancellor has said she particularly enjoys diving untouched reefs in places such as Fiji.

After a formal education, Peters said, her mother believes travel is the best way to learn about the world and about yourself.

When the Keaseys weren't seeing the world, Peters said, they spent time at home together.

"We were always playing games," she said. "My mom likes to play Scrabble, and my dad gets so excited the one time a year he wins."

"I always said she had the talent to be a university chancellor," said Larry Vanderhoef, chancellor of the University of California at Davis. He has known Tomlinson-Keasey since his school hired her as vice provost for faculty relations in 1992, and considers her a good friend.

"The thing that I was impressed with from the beginning was that you never caught her at a moment when she wasn't alert and energetic."

Limitless vigor seems to be her trademark, and she has a sense of humor about herself that allowed her to dress up as the Energizer bunny for a Halloween celebration at Davis.

Even a bout with breast cancer a few years ago didn't knock her down.

"She never missed a beat," said Cardoza, who got to know Tomlinson-Keasey because of her work to bring the university to life. He now considers her a friend, too.

"Her illness came at the time the UC was most threatened," Cardoza said, referring to the environmental and budgetary issues that demanded her careful attention. "Most people would have crumbled."

She has been cancer-free for three years, friends said, although the chancellor declined to comment.


It's not in her nature to give in, no matter what she's doing, friends say. She seems to have been on this career track since she got into academia, and said if she weren't in education, she'd like to try working in a corporate environment.

She'd have the wardrobe for it, too. Peters said if people looked in her mother's closet, all they would see are suits. When the chancellor wants to dress down, she wears Peters' old sweat pants, left behind 15 years ago.

Tomlinson-Keasey has little time to relax as the university's opening day draws near, but said she makes time in the evenings to swim in her pool and read. She has run a marathon, skis, in-line skates and scuba dives, whenever possible.

A recent few days off were spent baby-sitting her granddaughter Avery Peters, 2, which Tomlinson-Keasey called a vacation.

"She's a pistol," the chancellor said. "My kind of kid."

Carol T-K, as she is known to colleagues, has unbound enthusiasm for education, but her eyes really light up when she talks about her family.

Her son, Kai, a Redwood City engineer who builds 3-D objects in computer space, has two children, and Peters has one.

"If you saw her with her grandkids, you'd never believe she's running a university," Peters said. "She dances to The Wiggles and reads Dr. Seuss stories in 10 different funny voices."


But there's no fooling around when there's a university to debut.

Cardoza said he was amazed at how savvy Tomlinson-Keasey was when it came to the politics of bringing a UC campus to the valley.

"This campus is happening, in large part, because of her," the congressman said. She has spent long hours in front of the Legislature, with potential donors and anyone else who could help -- a process that's probably frustrating to a woman who said she is not patient, period.

"I want it done now, I want it done right and I want it done cheaply," she said with a small smile.

Tomlinson-Keasey said she always has been interested in the diversity in the valley, and it's her goal to make a UC education available to anyone who can and wants to embrace it.

"She really appreciates young, aggressive minds," Cardoza said.

Vanderhoef said it takes someone with Tomlinson-Keasey's kind of intelligence and confidence to have kept the UC moving forward.

"I'm guessing that under most people, it would have gone off track," the UC Davis chancellor said.

Tomlinson-Keasey never has wavered, though, probably because she believes in reaching the fullest potential.

"She thinks you can do anything," her daughter said.

As far as Cardoza's concerned, she can.

"Carol can be on my team any time, to do anything she wants," he said. "She's a dynamo who makes things happen."

Bee staff writer Lorena Anderson can be reached at 578-2366 or