Time for candid chat with UC Merced chief

The new chancellor of the University of California at Merced will be in Modesto today as part of a listening tour of the valley.

Sung-Mo "Steve" Kang will meet with a variety of people, including The Bee's editorial board this morning. There's a tendency at such events for everyone to just exchange pleasantries. Surely the chancellor deserves a friendly welcome in Modesto, but there are at least two areas in which more and better dialogue is needed between town and gown:

Student applications — The number of valley students choosing UC Merced is too low. The campus provides a first-rate educational opportunity, especially in sciences and engineering, at a location not far from home. Its proximity gives students the option of living at home, but it has attractive campus dormitories, too. Why aren't more valley students applying?

One of Kang's stops today is at Modesto High School, where he'll meet with students who have been accepted to or have applied to UC Merced. We hope they'll be forthcoming — about why they found the campus appealing but also about why many of their classmates didn't apply. A wide-open, candid exchange could be useful for everyone.

A future medical school — UC Merced administrators are working on a business plan for a medical school that would depend on — and benefit — hospitals and clinics as far away as Stockton and Bakersfield.

The proposal is not for a traditional bricks-and-mortar facility, where students take all their classes in one building and do their early training in an adjoining teaching hospital. Rather, medical students would take years one and two of classes in Merced and then work with medical professionals at existing hospitals and clinics around the valley. Fresno was identified as the first clinical site, which makes sense because it already has a partnership with the University of California at San Francisco for a medical education program. Medical students in their third and fourth years get clinical training in Fresno hospitals, and many stay in the valley after completing their training.

Modesto should be next in line for such an arrangement.

Once the business plan is finished, perhaps as early as June, UC Merced will need the support of leaders throughout the valley as it pushes the plan through the Board of Regents. Fresno folks are buying in big time, including those who still resent the fact that the campus wasn't located there. The med school idea doesn't have a strong team of advocates yet in Modesto, and part of the reason might be that they don't understand the concept.

Here's what we do know: California isn't training enough physicians and has to import many of its new doctors from other states or countries. The ratio of doctors to residents is worse in the valley than elsewhere in the state. Even people with insurance find it difficult to get an appointment, particularly with a specialist.

Another UC medical school — there are five now, with another planned through the University of California at Riverside — will increase the number of physicians and improve access to health care. Modesto needs to be part of that picture.

These are only two of the issues that we hope will be on the table today as Modestans meet the new chancellor. He's coming to listen; we need to speak up.