Community support critical to growth of UC Merced, outgoing chancellor says

Rep. Jim Costa congratulates outgoing UC Merced chancellor Dorothy Leland during a celebration at the university on Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019. UC Merced unveiled two new research buildings as part of their 2020 project.
Rep. Jim Costa congratulates outgoing UC Merced chancellor Dorothy Leland during a celebration at the university on Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019. UC Merced unveiled two new research buildings as part of their 2020 project. Sjansen@mercedsun-star.com

Eight summers ago, I was invited by then-Congressman Dennis Cardoza to attend Atwater’s annual Fourth of July celebration — my first community event as the third chancellor of the University of California, Merced. As a native of rural Southern California, I felt right at home with the cowboy hats, horses and sweltering heat. The surprise was how warmly I was embraced by the community. I ended the day convinced that with this kind of community support, UC Merced was sure to succeed.

Having now ended my time as chancellor, I am reminded that many things do not change. Central Valley summer days can still be sweltering, I still see a lot of horses and cowboy hats, and the people remain hugely supportive of our work. But one thing did change: UC Merced, which faced some very tough early years, is not just succeeding, it is thriving. This could not have happened without forging a strong partnership with the people of the San Joaquin Valley, from elected officials and community leaders to our campus neighbors and even the people I run into at Raley’s.

That partnership began more than 25 years ago, when local leaders successfully organized to convince the Board of Regents to locate in Merced the first new UC campus in a generation. It continued when the university joined with the Merced County Board of Supervisors, the Virginia and Cyril Smith trusts, the city of Merced, and the Merced Irrigation District to initiate a collaborative planning process with the vision that all could grow together in harmony and with the landscape.

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Dorothy Leland is newly retired as chancellor of UC Merced. TOMAS OVALLE Tomas Ovalle

Together we suffered through the recession, when local unemployment exceeded 20 percent and average household incomes rivaled the poorest regions of the country, when state funding dried up and UC Merced’s growth was stalled — too small to achieve the aspirations of the local community or of a major research university.

When we found an innovative strategy for building new facilities needed to accommodate the continued growth of the campus, community leaders stood by our side. This first-of-its-kind delivery strategy was a tough sell, but with the outspoken support of Mayor Mike Murphy and other local officials, who spoke at every Board of Regents meeting, we ultimately prevailed. Phase 2 of the Merced 2020 project was completed this summer, with the final facilities scheduled to open next summer.

Together we are also fueling the local economy. The national recovery and smart local economic development initiatives are two pieces of the puzzle; Merced 2020 is the third piece, helping to generate 400 additional jobs. Upon completion, ongoing operations will increase campus spending by more than $200 million, bringing UC Merced’s total contribution to the San Joaquin Valley economy to nearly $1.6 billion in campus salaries, goods and construction awards.

Another key initiative — in partnership with the city — was construction of the new 67,400-square-foot Downtown Campus Center (DCC). Located across from City Hall, the DCC is part of a long-term strategy to integrate UC Merced’s teaching, research and public service resources into the fabric of Merced as well as to increase economic vitality in the downtown. All of this is helping Merced to experience the top personal income growth of any metro area in the country for the past five years, while the jobless rate has dropped to 7.3 percent.

Our progress isn’t just measured in dollars, though. We also have become partners with local arts organizations, such as the Merced Symphony, and with other local organizations, to address societal problems ranging from poverty to the region’s health disparities. As part of our mission to educate more of the San Joaquin Valley’s best and brightest students, we continue to focus on academic preparation through educational partnerships with schools throughout the region.

For the last eight years, we — as a campus and a community — have done more with less, and with more creativity. Defying long odds, we are making a mark: Today, UC Merced is designated a “doctoral-granting university with higher research activity,” or R2, the second-highest classification for American research universities — and we are by far the youngest institution to be so designated. We are now firmly ranked by U.S. News and World Report as one of the top 100 public universities in the nation. And applications for enrollment continue to increase, boosting our student body this year to more than 8,300 and making us the fastest-growing university in the nation.

As importantly, we are making our mark on the San Joaquin Valley’s economy, culture and educational levels and by addressing its societal problems. For this, we should all be proud.

For me, I am just eternally grateful. Thank you for eight years of many hot days, lots of cowboy hats, and most of all, your loyal friendship and support.

Dorothy Leland is chancellor emerita of the University of California, Merced, which she led from 2011 to 2019, and is chair of the Merced 2020 Project Board.