Despite harsh economic climate, university shows strong overall progress, sees surging student demand and continues expansion of quality research and academic programs
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Result: Plans for fully accredited medical and management schools are well underway, and major donor gifts to help fund both schools have been announced.
"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."
Patti Waid Istas