The secret to UC Merced’s success? It’s not all on campus

UC Merced Chancellor Dorothy Leland at UC Merced, standing in front of new construction in February 12.
UC Merced Chancellor Dorothy Leland at UC Merced, standing in front of new construction in February 12. Tomas Ovalle

More than 20 years ago, hundreds of Merced schoolchildren wrote postcards to the UC Board of Regents imploring them to choose Merced as the site of the system’s next campus.

Nearly a decade ago, UC Merced students came together and launched a campaign to attract Michelle Obama to the San Joaquin Valley for her first commencement address as first lady.

That power of community is compelling. It makes things happen.

At the time, both of these campaigns felt like impossible dreams, but our community made them happen. The Merced 2020 Project also felt, at times, like an impossible dream. But here we are.

This week, we open the first three buildings in a massive expansion called the Merced 2020 Project, adding the first 700 of 1,700 new beds for students, new classrooms and retail space, and the Pavilion – a beautiful dining facility that will likely become our campus’s new centerpiece.

In the next two years, we’ll add 10 more buildings, including state-of-the-art research labs. From groundbreaking in 2016 to final delivery in 2020, our campus will have nearly doubled in size, with the capacity to serve 10,000 students.

Soon, we’ll surpass 10,000 alumni, too. That’s 20,000 lives touched and transformed by UC Merced – and we’re just getting started.

As of 2017, UC Merced had infused nearly $3 billion into California’s economy since its inception – including more than $1.6 billion in the San Joaquin Valley – in salaries, goods and construction awards. The 2020 Project alone, with 600 employees on-site every day, is expected to generate $1.9 billion in regional economic impact and $2.4 billion statewide through its completion.

More than $660 million of the project’s $1.3 billion total budget has been spent. More space means hiring more faculty and staff – including 40 new employees already hired to support dining and custodial services for the new buildings, and dozens more new hires to come.

If you live in Merced, Atwater, Turlock or Modesto, and you’ve never been to UC Merced or haven’t visited for a few years, you simply must see our campus. It is a jewel in the University of California system and for the state. Now, we are in the midst of a truly historic moment.

Our three new buildings and the 10 yet to come, in and of themselves, are not going to transform the lives of our students. But they are symbolic of the pioneering spirit that helped lure UC to Merced, and of the willingness to dream big and to do so with great heart.

Our Downtown Campus Center is driving growth and expansion in the local economy. We are creating a culture of education and entrepreneurship. We are discovering the knowledge that will enable this region to thrive in the decades to come.

Merced has become home to a robust, student-centered research university, and the hub of the rebirth of the San Joaquin Valley. Can you imagine where we’ll be in 10 years, or 20, or 100?

UC Merced is the new heartbeat of California, and at the heart of every success we’ve achieved is a connection between people, a spirit of collaboration and the power of community.

Everyone in this community should feel a sense of pride in what we have accomplished here. We’ll never agree on everything, nor should we, but we will always work together to overcome our challenges. We are all on the same team, and we are building something truly remarkable.

We at UC Merced are proud to be part of this incredible journey, and have deep appreciation to those in our community and our region who have contributed to this success. Together, we will continue to build the future of Merced and the Valley here in the heartland of California.

Dorothy Leland is chancellor of the University of California, Merced.