With student enrollment expected to top the 5,000 mark this fall, faculty research projects winning major new grants and making national headlines, and intercollegiate athletics about to begin, the University of California, Merced, officially begins its seventh academic year today with rising expectations and a rapidly evolving profile within the San Joaquin Valley, the state and the UC system.
“We’ve definitely turned an important corner in our development,” said Chancellor Leland , who succeeded Steve Kang as UC Merced’s top administrative officer on July 1. “After many years dedicated to building a strong foundation, attracting great people and putting excellent academic and research programs in place, our young campus is quickly emerging as a significant force for change at a critical time in California’s history.”
Founded in 2005 with an inaugural class of just 875 students, UC Merced is the first new UC campus to be built since the mid-1960s and the first ever in the fast-growing San Joaquin Valley. A surge in student applications will drive enrollment to more than 5,000 students this fall, nearly a six-fold increase over the opening year. Research grants awarded to university faculty members totaled $17.5 million last fiscal year (July 2010 to June 2011) and now exceed $100 million since the university’s inception.
With an unprecedented focus on sustainable development, the campus has earned extensive recognition from the U.S. Green Building Council, which has given every building its LEED Gold or Silver award for excellence in energy and environmental design, construction and operation. No other university has met this level of performance with all of its buildings.
In addition, the campus has won preliminary accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges and is preparing for its first year of intercollegiate sports as a member of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics.
To date, UC Merced has invested nearly $650 million in the region, primarily in the form of construction contracts, goods and services purchased, and wages paid. As these dollars are reinvested locally by businesses and wage earners, the ripple effect increases their value to the region several times over. Statewide, UC Merced’s total investment now exceeds $1.2 billion.
Chancellor Leland believes the timing of UC Merced’s emergence couldn’t be more opportune.
“UC Merced is very important to the future of the San Joaquin Valley — and the Valley, which is California’s fastest-growing region, is very important to the future of the state,” she said.
“The investments we’re making each year in the Valley economy and its people will increase education levels, spawn new industries, create desirable jobs and improve the quality of living throughout the region. The Valley, in turn, will help lift the state out of a decade-long financial tailspin by greatly increasing its economic and intellectual output and reducing its historically high levels of poverty and unemployment.”
The campus has also triggered a sharp increase in college-going rates among Valley high school graduates. Since 2004, the year before UC Merced opened, applications from Valley students to the UC system as a whole have increased more than 50 percent, reversing a pattern of low educational attainment that has plagued the region for decades.
For these and other reasons, the development of the 10th UC campus has been widely anticipated since UC Merced began limited operations in a rented facility in 1999. But there’s another reason Leland feels UC Merced is hitting its stride at exactly the right time.
“UC Merced is a fresh expression of all that the University of California system has meant to the state for more than 140 years,” she said. “That contribution is now threatened by repeated budget cuts and a lack of vision by many state policymakers.
“UC Merced’s growing contributions to the Valley, the state and the world serve as a timely reminder of the fundamental value of public education and cutting-edge research — which is exactly what built California into one of the preeminent economic, technological and cultural powers in the world.”
As one example of UC Merced’s research contribution, Leland said a recently published study on forest fires in Yellowstone National Park generated extensive national media coverage and alerted state and federal authorities to the increasing threat of fire destruction as a result of climate change.
“UC Merced faculty members are deeply committed to the rigorous process of discovery, of understanding and explaining our world and its many complexities for the betterment of all,” Leland said. “This quality has been at the heart of the UC system for generations and accounts for much of the innovation that has carried our state to international prominence.”
“Class sizes at UC Merced are really small,” said Ka Bao Her, a freshman from Marysville. “This gives me more opportunities to interact with my professors.”
UC Merced is also the most diverse campus within the UC system and is one of only two UC campuses to be officially recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as a Hispanic Serving Institution (signifying a student body that’s more than 25 percent Hispanic).
This year’s freshman class consists of approximately 1,400 students from every corner of the state. Most prominently represented are the Greater San Joaquin Valley, the San Francisco Bay Area and the Greater Los Angeles area. Exact enrollment numbers and geographic distribution won’t be tabulated until the fall census is completed in October.
Eighteen new faculty members also have been added this year, giving the campus 144 ladder-rank professors and 120 lecturers. And staff employment is now 1,100, not including undergraduate student employees.
The new faculty members and their areas of concentration are:
All of this adds up to a campus that’s thriving and demonstrating, once again, the real source of California’s storied success.
“There’s nothing wrong with the California dream that a renewed focus on higher education can’t address,” Leland said. “We see it in the eyes of our students every day.”