University of California President Janet Napolitano toured UC Merced on Thursday, her first visit to a campus since being named the system’s leader.
“I came here first because this campus is really important — not only for the UC system as whole but for the Valley and for the state,” Napolitano said outside the Half Dome residence hall after meeting with students. “We want to do everything we can to make sure it not only succeeds but thrives moving forward.”
During her day on campus, Napolitano met with campus leadership, faculty and staff members and students. She also toured the main campus, including its library and laboratories affiliated with all three academic schools. She also learned about UC Merced’s sustainability commitment, exemplified by its Central Plant and solar array.
“Part of what UC needs to do is build on what we have,” she said. “We’ll be looking at all kinds of things to make sure we carry forward with the grand tradition that the UC has.”
Napolitano’s visit began late Wednesday night, when she sat in with School of Natural Sciences Dean Juan C. Meza on a science class that goes until 10:50 p.m., an example of the campus’s pressing need for additional classroom space. UC Merced, founded in part to increase access to the University of California, has 6,195 students this fall. The campus will limit its growth in the next few years until new buildings are constructed.
“I’m delighted with our new president and that she’s here. We had a great visit,” Chancellor Dorothy Leland said. “I’m convinced, even more now, she’ll be a great leader of the University of California and a great supporter of this campus and region.”
Touring the campus, Napolitano visited three labs with faculty and graduate students who are conducting research aimed at aiding society. The graduate students are at the forefront of some of the research projects, publishing and presenting their findings across the world. As part of the 2020 Project and to continue to grow its research strength, UC Merced is planning to have 1,000 graduate students spread across its three academic schools by 2020.
Napolitano’s first lab visit was to the powerwall, an immersive 3-D environment that helps researchers in many disciplines. Scholars studying world heritage use it to recreate historic sites in 3-D. Researchers in cognitive science and computer science use it to better understand human movement and interaction.
Napolitano then visited Professor Carolin Frank’s laboratory, where researchers are studying beneficial bacteria living in the conifers in Yosemite National Park. Researchers are looking at how they might help the trees cope with climate change. Experts in environmental systems, biological engineering and mechanical engineering are collaborating on the project.
Afterward, she visited physics Professor Sayantani Ghosh’s lab, where the researchers are designing materials that will be used in photovoltaic, laser and computer-memory devices.
Napolitano met with UC Merced’s academic senate and other faculty members to talk about their views, achievements, problems and dreams.
“The conversation with her was quite affable and engaging,” said Ignacio López-Calvo, a literature professor and this year’s chair of the Merced division of the Academic Senate. “She promised to support our campus as much as she can and fight for UC interests whenever she interacts with California’s political leadership.”
During a meeting with campus staff, Napolitano said she feels a natural affinity with UC Merced because her late father played a key role in developing the School of Medicine at the University of Albuquerque. He served as the school’s third dean during a time when it developed an international reputation for innovation in curriculum and education, said current Dean Paul Roth.
“I chose UC Merced deliberately as my first campus visit,” Napolitano said. “It’s a very special campus.”
Katie Unruh, the president of Staff Assembly, said Napolitano made all the people in the room feel comfortable to express their opinions.
“She’s a very good listener,” Unruh said. “She heard everything we said. Also, she has a wonderful sense of humor, which I think is important.”
Third-year student Aja Rose Johnson said was among the students who met with Napolitano in the afternoon. She said she was impressed by the UC president’s openness to the students’ ideas and suggestions.
“Change is always great, and we have someone new to lead us in a new direction,” Johnson said.
The UC Board of Regents on July 18 appointed Napolitano as the 20th president of the University of California. She previously served as secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and a two-term governor of Arizona.
Napolitano, the first female president in UC’s 145-year history, succeeded Mark G. Yudof. She is an accomplished public sector leader with a long-standing interest in education. She was the search committee’s unanimous choice from among more than 300 prospective candidates.
As UC’s president, she oversees 10 campuses and five medical centers — plus a new medical school at UC Riverside — as well as three affiliated national laboratories and a statewide agriculture and natural resources program.