Steve Kang: An open letter to the community

When I was named chancellor of the University of California, Merced, in 2007, I knew instantly it would be the most challenging experience I would ever have in my career as an educator but also the most gratifying.

Today, as I prepare to step down to return to teaching and research at UC Santa Cruz, I couldn’t be more certain of that initial assessment. Building a major research university in the midst of the most difficult economic period since the Great Depression has presented more than a few hurdles, to say the least. The state’s economy, weak when I assumed this position, has gotten even worse, making every dollar precious and forcing us to make tough budget decisions every day.

Yet six years after opening our doors, UC Merced has emerged as a thriving and fast-growing institution that is having an increasing impact on the San Joaquin Valley, the state and the world.

Student enrollment is expected to top 5,000 this fall, four times what it was when I arrived here. Economic investment in the region has passed the $500 million mark. External funding for faculty research exceeds $100 million, and private gifts to the university total more than $50 million. Our campus is far and away the most energy-efficient, environmentally sustainable facility in the UC system, if not the country. But nothing marks our progress here as much as the look of determination I see every day on the faces of our students. As I delivered my commencement address to the class of 2011 several weeks ago, I couldn’t help but marvel at the enormous hardship so many of our graduates had endured to reach that point.

More than half of our students come from low-income households. In most cases, neither parent attended college. Cultural barriers and inadequate preparation often make the transition to university life extremely difficult for many of our students, who were led to believe since childhood that college was not an attainable goal.

Imagine, then, the pride these graduates felt as they heard their names called and strode across the stage to accept their diplomas. In that one moment, they proved to the world — and to themselves — that they are much more than worthy. Indeed, they are some of the most inspirational people I have ever met, well on their way to being the leaders of tomorrow. I am equally proud of our outstanding faculty and staff, who have taught and supported them with great dedication.

I didn’t fully comprehend just how gratifying my tenure here would be until I’d had that experience several times. Now, I can’t imagine anything more rewarding.

UC Merced is changing the lives of our young people in a way that even seasoned educators could not have anticipated. I am humbled and deeply thankful that I’ve had a chance to witness their growth and be part of such an important transformation.

My successor, Dorothy Leland, is an experienced institution builder with more than 30 years of experience at some of the nation’s finest universities. She is ideally suited to lead the next phase of development for our young campus.

She’ll find that UC Merced has a very solid foundation, with strong academic programs, outstanding research initiatives, top-level faculty and staff and an innovative learning environment perfect for the 21st century. She’ll also find a community that shares and supports our belief in education as the very best hope we have to lift the Valley economically and realize its potential as California’s next great frontier.

As my wife Mia and I prepare to leave Merced on June 30, we would like to thank everyone for making our stay here so enjoyable and memorable. It has been a distinct honor and privilege to serve the university and the people who welcomed us here.