Some people view the fields spreading away from the UC Merced campus and see only emptiness. Some look at the sun, and think, “It’s too darned hot.” Others see the Sierra rising in the distance and say only, “It’s so far away.”
Those folks should get back on Highway 99 and find a different community, a community where dreams don’t come true.
We don’t see endless fields; we see vernal pools being studied when they’re wet and when they’re bursting with blossoms. We don’t think it’s too hot; we think that’s the power of the sun just waiting to be harnessed by solar scientists. Those mountains aren’t so far away; in fact, our Valley’s university is right there in the middle of them serving as home base for the Sierra Nevada Research Institute. And that barely begins to tell even a tiny fraction of the story of UC Merced’s first 10 years.
As home of California’s newest UC, it’s time to look over our shoulders and think about where we started, what we’ve accomplished, whom we have helped and, yes, what we could have done better. Once that moment passes, it will be time to focus on the future – just as UC Merced, under three different chancellors, has been doing since its inception.
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In its first decade, the university has done exactly what it promised. Not in a fell swoop, not immediately and not without pauses, hiccups and momentary setbacks. But in 10 years we have seen a fully functioning, socially important and growing University of California campus arise on the edge of Merced. It’s not a dream, it’s not a mirage, it’s not a few empty buildings in search of a visionary. It’s a vision realized.
And it belongs to us ... and the rest of California.
It’s unlikely you need a recap, but we recall the naysayers complaining that the new UC should be planted in a healthier community. They still talk about the old Merced Hills golf course as if they’re afraid students will get stuck in a sand trap. We recall the thrill of seeing the earth start moving, then the buildings – connected through utility tunnels – rising from the grasslands. It was exciting to see students finally arrive – many of them Valley kids, but many more from Los Angeles and the Bay Area; kids who had never seen a cow up close until one wandered through campus.
That’s probably what brings the greatest sense of pride – all those young people, deciding to come to the Valley, undoubtedly a foreign place for most. For dozens, their first night at UC Merced was their first night away from home. Thousands have been the first in their families to attend college. Their families entrusted our region to care for their kids, just as they entrusted those kids to care for their dreams. Important tasks.
Those students reflect California. UC Merced has the highest diversity of any campus in the UC system. In a minority-majority state, these are the young people who will be creating our state for the future. Many are getting their start here, destined never to forget the Valley.
How could they forget professors who invite them into their homes for long discussions over dinner? Opportunities to work on research projects involving wildfire, childhood obesity, air pollution and other issues of vital importance to the Valley?
“We want to make sure we don’t lose that,” said Dorothy Leland, chancellor since 2011. “There really is a sense of community on our campus; that spirit has (given) our students a connection – a connection they want to give back to our communities.”
Many will stay in the area. There are 115 students or alumni working for Valley companies, including E.&J. Gallo Winery, city of Modesto, Foster Farms, Frito-Lay, Del Monte Foods and Kaiser Permanente, among others. With 6,300 students on campus – four times more than even five years ago – more internships are needed.
“We’ve got students at various nonprofits, industry and business sectors,” said Leland. “They not only give students experience in the fields they’re interested in, but they also tell our students that there are opportunities right here in the San Joaquin Valley. And we want to keep our students here; we don’t want to export them to Los Angeles or San Francisco or, God forbid, some other state.”
The school’s not perfect. It remains isolated from town; more needs to be done to ensure those who want jobs get them; etc. Leland sees other warts.
“There are few things in life that are unqualified successes … you’re always looking to improve,” she said. “We’ve got a really wonderful student population, and we graduate the very vulnerable populations at a significantly higher rate (than other schools). But that’s still below the University of California (graduation rate), and one of our goals is to have our students graduate at the same rate as the bigger, older and more highly ranked UC campuses.”
It wasn’t the university’s fault that speculators – blinded by the prerecession housing bubble – overbuilt, leaving acres of empty neighborhoods. It takes time to grow a UC campus. But communities are catching up, due in part to the university’s investment. UC Merced has spent $152 million with businesses in Stanislaus and Merced counties – nearly half its total expenditures. Throw in $930 million in payroll, and the economic impact is substantial. How much deeper would the recession have gotten without the university?
More is coming through the 2020 project, a major expansion.
The university has more momentum than at any time since its inception. UC Merced has delivered on its promise and is poised to do so much more – an innovative growth plan; important engineering research; a desperately needed medical school. “Partnerships will be the key,” said Leland.
Ten years ago, UC Merced was little more than a mirage rising from the fields of Merced County; only a few were capable of seeing its potential. The more who see it, invest in it, partner with it, the greater it becomes for all of us.