May 13, 2010
Despite harsh economic climate, university shows strong overall
progress, sees surging student demand and continues expansion of
quality research and academic programs
- UC Merced will conclude its fifth year of operation with this
weekend’s commencement celebration.
- Though it opened amid many challenges and serious questions,
the university has shown strong progress toward its founding goals.
- University officials agree there is much work left to be done,
but past successes and a sound plan for the future ensure the
campus will fulfill its mission.
MERCED — When the University of California, Merced, opened
its doors to full-time operation in the fall of 2005, the future
was full of hope and promise — and a lot of unanswered questions.
After all, the UC system hadn’t opened a new campus in 40 years,
despite an exploding state population and significant overcrowding
at other campuses. Would it remember how?
The state’s once high-flying economy was headed south in a
hurry. Could it find a way to support another major research university?
The San Joaquin Valley had suffered from decades of poverty and
unemployment and the lowest rates of educational attainment in the
state. Would it embrace a new university and send its children
there to help reverse a long history of underachievement — or
would it feel alienated from it?
“There were many, many questions five years ago,” Chancellor
Steve Kang said, “but never any doubt about one thing: Higher
education is the key to long-term prosperity and happiness, and the
Valley had limited UC access for much too long.
“UC Merced’s founders were confident that a new campus, once
established, would bring educational opportunity, quality jobs,
economic growth, tax revenues and other benefits the Valley and the
state desperately need. That is exactly what’s happening, and we
couldn’t be more elated about it.”
Results Indicative of Success
As UC Merced completes its fifth full academic year with
commencement this weekend, a cursory look at progress to date
against the principal goals established for the newest UC campus
strongly supports Kang’s assessment.
Goal: Increase capacity of the UC system.
Result: More than 3,400 students were enrolled at UC Merced this
year, up from 875 in the university’s inaugural year. All were
fully UC-eligible students who might otherwise not have been
admitted to the UC system because of capacity constraints on other
campuses. Approximately 4,000 students are expected to enroll this
fall, following a record number of applications. The university is
on track to enroll as many as 11,000 students by 2020 and 25,000 by 2035.
Goal: Increase college-going rates in the Valley.
Result: Since the fall of 2004, the year before UC Merced
opened, applications to the UC system as a whole have increased by
51 percent and admissions have risen 47 percent (as of 2009). (More
than 1,000 undergraduate students at UC Merced are Valley natives,
comprising nearly 32 percent of the undergraduate population.) UC
Merced’s presence serves as a powerful influence in increasing
awareness of the value and accessibility of a UC education among
Valley students, parents and counselors.
Goal: Serve as an economic stimulus to the Valley economy.
Result: Since July 2000, UC Merced has invested nearly $500
million directly into the Valley economy through construction
projects and purchase of goods and services. With approximately
1,000 employees, the university has generated local payrolls of
some $269 million, much of which flows back into the regional
economy in the form of business patronage and tax revenues.
Statewide, the investment total is nearly $1 billion.
Goal: Serve as a model of environmentally responsible yet
Result: UC Merced’s planned “footprint” has been modified twice
to minimize impacts on the region’s sensitive ecology while
ensuring that an attractive, functional layout can be built. The
university’s award-winning 2009 Long-Range Development Plan sets
the highest standards for sustainable development and operation of
any university in the country, far exceeding statewide and UC
system-wide standards for conservation and environmentally
sensitive operation. In addition, UC Merced is the only campus in
the country to have all its buildings LEED certified by the U.S.
Green Building Council.
Goal: Begin to address the most pressing problems in the
Valley, state, nation and world by hiring world-class faculty and
attracting significant grant awards to fund meaningful research.
Result: UC Merced has attracted 120 faculty members, many from
the most prestigious universities in the world. Research awards to
date total some $92 million. Key research themes identified in the
university’s initial strategic academic plans provide focus and
stimulus for potential breakthroughs on topics of significant
local, regional and global interest, such as infectious diseases,
environmental resource management and climate change.
Goal: Ensure that every student, regardless of economic,
cultural or ethnic background, has a chance to succeed.
Result: UC Merced is the most culturally and socioeconomically
diverse campus in the UC system. It was recently designated a
Hispanic-Serving Institution by the federal government, becoming
one of only two UC campuses to be so honored. More than half of
undergraduate students hail from families that meet the state’s
definition of low-income family, while more than half come from
families where neither parent has a four-year degree. Both figures
are the highest in the UC system.
Goal: Begin the process of establishing professional schools to
address the Valley’s chronic health and economic-development challenges.
Result: Plans for fully accredited medical and management
schools are well underway, and major donor gifts to help fund both
schools have been announced.
Much More to Do
“Our three-part mission of excellence in education, research and
community service is well begun, despite an extremely difficult
economic environment,” Kang says. “But we won’t spend much time
reflecting on it. There is so much more to do, and the pace of
activity will only accelerate as we move into the next phase of
growth. It will be a very exciting and challenging next five years.”
To facilitate the university’s physical growth, the UC Board of
Regents recently approved a $1.129 billion capital-improvement plan
that will support construction of additional classroom, laboratory
and housing facilities over the next 10 years.
As student enrollment surges, course offerings and degree
programs also are growing rapidly. UC Merced now offers students a
choice of 19 majors and 22 minors and gives many undergraduates a
chance to conduct hands-on, real-world research with a university
professor. Opportunities to study abroad in more than 30 different
countries are also available to eligible students. Students
pursuing a master’s and/or doctoral degree have nine programs to
choose from, ranging from biological engineering and small-scale
technologies to social and cognitive sciences.
“So much has changed in the last five years, it’s hard to
believe we’re still the same campus,” says Jane Lawrence, vice
chancellor for student affairs. “Students have formed more than 110
clubs, started dozens of sports programs, launched a bi-monthly
campus newspaper, established campus chapters of national
fraternities and sororities and done countless other things on
their own initiative. Their spirit of innovation and
entrepreneurialism meshes very well with the UC commitment to
excellence on our campus.”
For example, Lawrence notes, a handful of students managed to
persuade first lady Michelle Obama to attend last year’s
commencement and deliver the keynote speech — without any
official university backing.
“They just did it,” Lawrence says. “We quickly learned never to
underestimate the creativity and energy our students can put behind
an idea if it’s powerful enough.
“Many of our graduates are going on to top-ranked graduate and
professional schools or are taking jobs that reflect the quality of
their UC Merced education and the effort they put into it. They
will truly become the leaders of tomorrow — a notion that was
unimaginable for so many of them before they unlocked their
potential in just a few short years.”
As another 325 UC Merced students prepare to graduate this
weekend, nothing could be more rewarding to those community and
university visionaries who fought for many years to bring the
campus to the Valley.
“We are having a meaningful impact,” Kang said. “We’re very
optimistic that we’re well on the way to creating a brighter future
for a very deserving region and for the state as a whole.”