Dorothy Leland, UC Merced’s strong leader, set a high standard for the next chancellor

UC Merced CA chancellor to step down this year, she says

UC Merced Chancellor Dorothy Leland announced Monday, May 13, 2019, her intention to step down in August from the role she’s had for the past eight years. She is expected to name an interim later this week.
Up Next
UC Merced Chancellor Dorothy Leland announced Monday, May 13, 2019, her intention to step down in August from the role she’s had for the past eight years. She is expected to name an interim later this week.

When Dorothy Leland was asked if she would apply to become chancellor of UC Merced, her first reaction was to say no.

“I’m going to retire,” she recalled repeatedly telling the recruiter who had called her.

But Leland did apply, and wound up becoming UC Merced’s third chancellor at a critical time in its young history. The campus had about 4,000 students and was needing to rapidly grow further to handle more enrollment and associated classrooms, research labs and support facilities.

Enter Leland. Then president of Georgia College and State University, she came to Merced and, in only eight years, has nearly doubled the enrollment and has pushed forward an ambitious building program called the Merced 2020 Project. In its four years, the $1.3 billion project will have doubled the size of the campus so that 10,000 students can be accommodated.

This week Leland announced she would be stepping down in August, feeling the time is right to turn the university over to someone new.

She won’t be easy to replace. Her dogged determination and focus has moved UC Merced to new stature and positioned it well for the future. Here is a short list of her accomplishments:

Despite arriving in 2011 during the Great Recession and its negative impact on state funding, Leland steadily pushed forward on developing UC Merced because of its importance to the central San Joaquin Valley. More than 70 percent of UC Merced students are the first in their families to attend college. More than half of the students are Hispanic. UC Merced has the highest percentage of first-generation and low-income students of any campus in the university system.

During her tenure, there has been a 73 percent increase in graduate students.

Four new majors and 134 new faculty members have been added.

About 90 percent of the students receive some kind of financial aid.

Leland has been outspoken in support of her student body, and in particular, DACA students — young people who were brought to America by their parents from another nation. She was one of the founding members of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education, a group of 240 higher-education leaders who support policies and practices that help immigrant, undocumented and international students succeed at U.S. colleges.

In early 2018 Leland traveled to Washington, D.C. to speak on behalf of the so-called Dreamers. “These students are good people, hard workers, and they just want to create a better life for themselves and their families,” she said then. “They don’t want to be treated like poker chips.” UC Merced has 600 DACA students, the largest proportion of any UC campus.

When it comes to town-gown relations, Leland made significant impact. She helped create the Downtown Campus Center, a 67,400-square-foot facility across from Merced City Hall. It houses 40 nonacademic departments and more than 300 employees whose presence has helped energize downtown businesses and restaurants.

University of California, Merced Chancellor Dorothy Leland speaks about the university’s 2020 project in a meeting in 2016. Andrew Kuhn akuhn@mercedsun-star.com

UC Merced has steadily climbed in the U.S. News and World Report’s Best Colleges list. In the last ranking, it was at No. 136 overall among national universities, and was No. 67 for top public schools.

More than 20 doctoral degrees can now be earned at UC Merced, most in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

UC President Janet Napolitano said a search will begin immediately to find a successor. And Leland will not completely step away. She will chair the Merced 2020 Project’s governing board for a year, and help steer the campus in its burgeoning partnership with the U.S. Park Service.

This weekend she will preside over the 2019 commencement ceremonies, including giving the keynote addresses.

“These have been the most gratifying eight years of my long professional career,” Leland said when she announced her retirement, effective Aug. 15.

Leland, now 71, did a superb job of developing the newest UC campus. May the next chancellor be as equal to the task.