Opening Convocation and Celebration: "A Perfect 10" by Chancellor Carol Tomlinson-Keasey


A tenth campus of the University of California is the fulfillment of a promise to the people of California - a promise that began shortly after the Gold Rush with the conviction that education reshapes society and promotes prosperity. In looking at the early history of the University, Pat Pelfrey praises those who guided Cal through "the bogs of public apathy and around quicksands of perennial bankruptcy." At one point, the financial straits at Cal were so severe that the president of the University was sometimes confronted in the street by bill collectors. When a hardware store wanted to repossess the college bell, three students took it upon themselves to raise the $100 owed. Despite these budgetary issues, the passionate citizens and early leaders of California never lost sight of the goal - a university to serve its people.

From my vantage point over 130 years later, I can tell you that the political bogs and financial quicksand are still there; thankfully, so are the leaders to champion the cause of education and this campus. The idea that became UC Merced might be traced to Theo Kearney, a farmer and financier in Fresno, who first argued for a local UC campus in 1905. Clark Kerr recognized the same need when he started the planning for three new campuses to absorb the baby boom. But David Gardner moved the idea to the forefront as the echo of the baby boom approached. Since then we have had hundreds of community supporters, dozens of elected officials, a gaggle of Regents, a score of chancellors, four UC presidents, four governors and there must be a chancellor in a pear tree in there somewhere. Many of the people here today are included in that group of committed supporters. These are the folks who negotiated the financial quicksand and political whimsy of our time. I hope each of you takes great pride in the students and faculty assembled for they will turn this campus into a perfect 10.

Beginnings like today offer great promise. We have seen the humble, rural beginnings of nine other campuses turn into millions of alumni leading the world, thousands of innovative ideas and artistic creations that thrill our souls. UC Merced resolves to reach that same high standard - a perfect 10. How is such quality achieved? I would like to suggest that at a research university, ideas are the primary indicator of quality. Let's talk about ideas for a minute.


When I was at Berkeley as a student, ideas bumped into me in the hallway, swirled around me in Sproul Plaza, snuck up behind me in a seminar and tackled me from printed pages. Ideas were everywhere and they commanded my attention. Some were positively brilliant, many less so, some surely should never have been voiced, but all of them required me to consider, reflect, investigate, revamp, expand, discard and consider again. Ideas force all of us to think.

Ideas move the world and they thrive in the culture of a research university. I feel the force of ideas already at UC Merced, ideas bubbling up and grabbing our attention. One of our professors, and today the official representative from the University of Chicago, said to me, "Carol, think of sunlight as a liquid, then you can do anything with it, pour it from container to container, spread it out, focus it, move it from where it is to where you want it." What a wonderful idea.

Today, new ideas flash around the world in an instant. Thomas Friedman described the Wikipediain his book "The World is Flat." The Wikipediais a free, online encyclopedia that can be edited by anyone. It receives 60 million hits a day from all over the world. What a fascinating way to have a truly global discussion about contemporary issues and ideas. And note also that this forum of ideas bears only a vague resemblance to the standard of yesteryear, the Encyclopedia Britannica.

New ideas emerge when scholars and thoughtful students have time to explore in an environment that fosters free expression. And new ideas flow from the University of California in torrents. Last year, UC professors were issued over 400 new patents - more than one a day. At UC Merced, we have structured our academic organization with minimal barriers across disciplines just to promote the free flow of ideas, and we have hired extraordinary faculty and attracted thoughtful students. It is not surprising that our faculty have already begun to contribute to UC's patent total.


To optimize the flow of ideas, you need leaders and faculty with vision and appropriate resources. Ideas thrive in an environment that is looking forward. Universities that are stagnant do not prompt the ideas that will shape our tomorrows. Hence, University leaders must assess where higher education is heading, where the ideas of tomorrow will emerge and where resources could have an impact. Then they can help create an environment that facilitates the exploration of new ideas.

Our board of trustees recently visited Google - a fascinating company that, like the University, deals in knowledge. The leadership at Google has very explicitly constructed an environment that chases new ideas. The environment allows great individual freedom, it works to reduce mundane responsibilities, it promotes individual comfort while encouraging an amazing amount of cross talk between individuals with different kinds of expertise. It is not surprising that, at Google, ideas are everywhere.

Several years ago, the state, the University and California's leading corporations began an unprecedented partnership that is laying the foundation for intellectual exploration critical to the 21st century. Four California Institutes for Science and Innovation will chase new ideas in nanotechnology, in information technology, in biomedical research and in telecommunications. UC Merced faculty members are already exploiting tiny sensors developed at one of these institutes to trace the contamination of the rivers in the Central Valley and to assess the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada.

These are just two recent cases where leadership and vision helped pave the way for new ideas.


Resources are woven tightly into any potpourri of ideas. An adequate resource base is critical to assessing, researching, promoting and implementing ideas. And remember, a single fantastic idea may emerge only after multiple earlier failures.

Hence, every campus leader spends a great deal of time worrying about resources. State funding is not sufficient to support the investigations that fuel tomorrow's economy. Therefore, like our sister campuses, we are working hard to build revenue streams that augment state funding. We look to the federal government, private corporations and personal benefactors to help us pursue ideas.

Since 2003, our tiny faculty has brought in over $15 million in grants and contracts. A recent grant to Henry Forman will look at ways to help the lungs ward off the impact of cigarette smoke or air pollution. Our Center for Computational Biology, led by Michael Colvin, builds on the important relationship between computers and biology. The human genome was sequenced in record time because computer scientists and biologists worked together. Our Center will exploit this synergy to understand more about biological systems. Federal grants constitute an amazing percentage of the University's budget and these grants help propel ideas.

Private philanthropy

The University of California has been blessed by a tradition of generous private support. Most of the early buildings on the Berkeley campus were the result of gifts. The first great scientific station - the Lick Observatory, was a gift from James Lick. Gifts of art collections, endowed chairs and scholarships for students have helped establish all of the campuses. At UC Merced, our development staff of three has raised close to $45 million dollars. We are so grateful to corporations, foundations and private benefactors who have had the vision that will help us become a "Perfect 10." Many of these benefactors are in the audience today and I would like to thank them for helping us in these early years. You have helped start an institution that will give back to millions of people around the world as the years roll by.

UC Merced will become a "Perfect 10" by following in the footsteps of our sister campuses, by finding the scholars, the leaders and the resources that mesh to create an environment overflowing with ideas. Students, that environment will be yours to enjoy, beginning tomorrow. Enjoy.

Let me conclude by paraphrasing John F. Kennedy's inaugural address. Our University will not be finished in the first 20 years. Nor will it be finished in 50 years, nor in several lifetimes. But let us begin.

Thank you very much.

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