UC Merced Chancellor Dorothy Leland announced Monday her intention to step down in August from the role she’s held for the past eight years.
She is expected to name an interim later this week before the University of California conducts a nationwide search for her replacement.
“These have been the most gratifying eight years of my long professional career,” she said. “The decision to step down is not easy, but the moment is right, both for the campus and for me.”
Leland joined the then six-year-old campus in 2011 as the bottom fell out of the economy and California went through a budget crisis.
During her tenure, enrollment grew by more than 4,000 students to about 8,500, including a 73 percent increase in graduate students. The school also added four new majors and 134 new faculty members.
She’s also been behind the $1.3 billion UC Merced 2020 Project, which is expected to make enough room for 10,000 students by next year. To double the size of the campus in four years, Leland pursued a public-private partnership, the first of its kind for a public higher education institution in the country.
She said on Monday she almost didn’t come to the blossoming campus. The 71-year-old was on her way to retirement and not looking to start a new job, she said.
“A headhunter called me about UC Merced and I kept saying, ‘I’m going to retire,’ ” she said.
Then she thought of what a new UC could mean for the Central San Joaquin Valley. The Southern California native said she has family in Bakersfield and other parts of the Valley.
UC Merced has been touted as a way to get more Californians — and especially Valley youth — into a university. But it’s had its doubters, Leland said.
“There was a period where a lot of people thought it was a crazy idea,” she said. “Everything so far is on time, on budget — and I really like this last point — no litigation. It’s been a very smooth operation.”
UC President Janet Napolitano said she will launch a national search to find a new chancellor. “There is no doubt Chancellor Leland’s strong leadership and tireless advocacy on behalf of UC’s youngest campus has helped amplify UC Merced’s many strengths and solidify its place in the system,” she said in a news release. “She has well-positioned the campus for its next pivotal phase, including the completion of Merced 2020 and the path toward even stronger financial footing.”
More than 70 percent of UC Merced students are the first in their families to go to college. The campus is also some 55 percent Hispanic.
About 90 percent of the students get financial aid of some kind. First-generation students from low-income families of color are not expected to graduate at especially high rates, but they’ve been successful at UC Merced.
UC Merced outpaced the U.S. News and World Report prediction for graduation rates with the six-year rate being 16 percentage points higher than expected. That put UC Merced at No. 2 of universities in the nation for outperforming on that measure.
Leland counted that high on her list of accomplishments on Monday.
The university has very few international or out-of-state students with the largest populations coming from Los Angeles (24.6 percent), the Bay Area (22.7 percent) and the Valley (26.5 percent).
The makeup of the campus was at least in part behind her becoming an outspoken advocate for students in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which are children brought to the US while very young.
UC Merced has about 600 students who are undocumented.
“They are amazing young people. The stress they have been under the last two years is incredible and, in my view, unconscionable,” she said. “They’re like your kid (or) my kid. They grew up here. They’ve been amazing students. They have so much to give to our community and country.”
Leland pledged to continue to work on immigration reform.
The chancellor was also at the helm on UC Merced’s darkest day, Nov. 4, 2015, when an 18-year-old student stabbed four people on campus before he was shot dead by a campus police officer.
Multiple candlelight vigils and other meetings followed the events. Leland praised the school’s students, staff and faculty for pulling together during a difficult time.
Merced Mayor Mike Murphy reacted to Leland’s announcement on Twitter. “(She) has been a true champion of the (UC Merced) campus and the city of Merced,” he tweeted.
Leland pointed to her age as a reason to begin to “slow down” and be with family, but said she has “a book or two” planned during her retirement.
Leland will maintain a relationship with UC Merced and has agreed to head the Merced 2020 Project Governance Board and provide leadership for other projects for the campus in its partnership with the National Park Service.
The city of Merced has worked well with the school, she said. City-owned land was sold to the university across from City Hall for the $45 million Downtown Center, a 67,400-square-foot building of about 370 employees, officials have said.
The city also partnered to create the Venture Lab, a business incubator.
“We would not be here without the local community and the efforts of the local community,” she said. “I will miss the community. I will be back.”