Portables will relieve the squeeze on UC Merced

MERCED -- Portable buildings aren't stylish, but they will be needed this fall at the University of California at Merced as the three-year-old campus hits capacity.

UC Merced struggles to meet student enrollment projections, but it has run out of space for staff, faculty offices and labs.

Limited room on campus is pushing staff and professors to locations at UC Merced's downtown building and the former Castle Air Force Base in Atwater. Officials will bring portables this fall to the northeast corner of campus and use them as office space, mainly for graduate students, Provost Keith Alley said.

Alley stressed the university has room for students, but lacks the space for labs necessary for research. UC Merced has about 100 professors.

"Other established UC campuses that have been around for a while have fostered donor relationships; they sometimes have more flexibility with the money they can throw into their capital project pot than we have at this point," Alley said.

Most of UC Merced's funding for construction comes from state bond revenue.

Busting at the seams doesn't affect undergraduates, Alley said. It affects graduate students who will be housed in the portables.

"We're not sure what the future holds. Space has been an issue from the beginning, especially with certain people staking out their territory," said Tom Hothem, a writing professor.

Hothem said the campus used to look like an airport, with faculty rolling their materials behind them in briefcases and carts. That image might not disappear soon.

Newer professors have been moved to offices and labs at Castle to accommodate the growth. About 10 professors are housed there, along with core research facilities such as those for genomics and nuclear magnetic resonance imaging. Information technology and human resources staff also call Castle home.

The university relations and business departments work out of the top two floors of the Mondo Building in downtown Merced, at the corner of Canal and Main streets. UC Merced probably always will have a presence at Castle and downtown, but not to this level, Alley said.

Travel time to UC Merced from the Mondo Building is about 15 minutes, and from Castle it's about 20 minutes, Alley said.

The next construction project will break ground in the coming months and open in the fall. The social sciences and management building will give the social sciences some much-needed breathing room with offices and labs.

Officials also will turn open meeting space and study cubicles on the third floor of the classroom building into modules for faculty. The modules will have walls and doors; the study space will disappear, Alley said.

Although the university's space issues haven't slowed faculty hiring, they make recruiting more difficult. UC Merced is competing with other research universities in California. It has to offer attractive salary and benefits as well as research and lab packages.

For instance, a senior-level organic chemist might need a lab with as many as 10 fume hoods, equipment that filters hazardous chemicals out of the lab's air system. Some hoods take up as much as 400 square feet, which means some professors would need as much as 4,000 square feet in fume hoods alone, Alley said.

"I have a friend who's a chemist. He has 3,000 square feet of space," Alley said. "We're offering 800 to 1,000 square feet to our senior faculty and far less to our junior members."

Alley said she anticipates hiring 20 to 30 faculty for the 2008-09 school year for a projected 2,500 students.

With a lack of adequate space, many professors will continue working from home, Hothem said.

"But it doesn't double as an office, where we can be available for office hours with students," he said. "We need a presence on campus."