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Original Article:
New Campus Still Faces Obstacles (spring 2004)


University of California, Merced
June 2008

SINCE 1994, most recently in the spring 2004 issue, National CrossTalk has reported on problems that have plagued the University of California’s newest campus, near the San Joaquin Valley city of Merced. Now some of those problems appear to be headed toward resolution.

Enrollment has picked up; some environmental issues have been resolved; and heated political opposition to the campus (the majority leader of the California State Senate once called it “the biggest boondoggle ever”) has cooled.

An attitude of inevitability has settled in among critics of the campus. “It is what it is,” said a one-time opponent. “Now, how are we going to help it succeed?”

Many of the environmental problems were created when the UC Board of Regents decided to locate the new campus in an area of vernal pools several miles east of downtown Merced. The pools, dry most of the year, come alive after the winter rains and are home to two endangered species—fairy shrimp and the California Tiger Salamander.

This required the campus to seek a “clean water” permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has jurisdiction over U.S. wetlands, as well as approval from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which protects endangered species.

For several contentious years the university stuck to its plan to build a 910-acre campus, with a large adjacent “University Community” of housing for 31,000 people, as well as retail stores and a performing arts center, despite clear signs that this would not be acceptable to the federal agencies.

But late in 2006 the university changed course and began more constructive talks with the federal agencies and with environmental organizations that were opposed to the campus-University Community plan.

“Eighteen months ago we decided to take a fresh look, a good businesslike look,” said Associate Chancellor Janet Young in a 2008 interview. “We began fresh exchanges with the agencies” and with environmental critics. Chancellor Sung-Mo (Steve) Kang, who took office in early 2007, gave his enthusiastic support to the new approach.

The result was a new plan that reduced the campus “footprint” from 910 to 810 acres and moved it slightly, to avoid some of the wetlands areas. In March 2008, the plan was submitted to the Corps of Engineers, which said it would take at least a year to review the proposal.

The groups continue to meet regularly. “I am cautiously optimistic,” said Carol Witham, a leading environmental critic of the original plan.

There are still plans for the University Community, next door to the campus, although in spring 2008, a large number of homes that were built on speculation in and around Merced stood empty, and the foreclosure rate was one of the highest in the nation.

“We think the market will correct,” Young said.

In Fall 2007, enrollment was 1,871 (1,750 undergraduates and 121 graduate students). This was well short of the expected 2,600, the state Legislative Analyst’s Office reported. The original target of 5,000 students by 2010 clearly will not be met.

“That was a very aggressive plan,” Kang said. “No other new (UC) campus has done that.”

A main selling point for the Merced campus was that it would serve California’s Central Valley (from Redding in the north to Bakersfield in the south), which sends fewer students to the University of California than do other regions of the state. About one-third of the current students come from the valley, where the campus recruits energetically at high schools with heavy Hispanic and other minority enrollments.

“We think that’s very good,” said Jane Lawrence, vice chancellor for student affairs. “No UC campus is regional. We are meeting the needs of the whole state.”

Applications have increased as the existence of the Merced campus has become better known and as other UC general campuses have reached capacity and have become more selective. (In fall 2007, UCLA admitted only 23.6 percent of 43,724 freshman applicants, UC Berkeley 24.7 percent of 36,083 applicants; but UC Merced admitted 79.6 percent of the 8,114 who applied.)

For fall 2008, UC Merced received more than 10,000 applications from first-year students. Freshman enrollment was 925, exceeding the 700 that had been planned, and the total enrollment was 2,718.

The campus opened during a time of chronic state budget deficits and curtailment of California’s postsecondary education spending. There were sharp reductions in the 2005-06 academic year, with another series of cuts scheduled for 2008-09.

“Our operations are very, very sensitive to fluctuations in the budget,” Chancellor Kang said. “It determines how many students we can take, how many faculty we can hire, how much classroom and lab space we will have.”

In the 2007-08 academic year UC Merced employed about 100 full-time faculty members, 78 lecturers and a staff of about 580. The campus budget for that year was about $100 million. Of that, $40 million came from the state, including $14 million in “startup” money that will phase out in 2011-12. Student fees (the University of California quaintly refuses to use the term “tuition”) generated another $13 million.

In addition to operating funds, the campus has received about $300 million from the state for buildings and equipment, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office.

Because the state budget included no money for enrollment growth in 2008-09, other UC campuses agreed to contribute $6 million to pay for new students at UC Merced—an unprecedented step, UC statewide officials said.

Despite the budget problems, the UC Board of Regents has authorized planning for a medical school at UC Merced. “The need is great in the Central Valley,” said Keith Alley, provost and executive vice president, but “planning will take the better part of a decade.”

Undergraduates enjoy many small classes. The student-faculty ratio is 15 to one, smaller than other UC general campuses. There is a heavy emphasis on science and engineering. Half of the undergraduates, and 40 percent of the graduate students, are enrolled in those subjects.

The campus awarded its first doctorate in 2008.

“Where we’re really hurting is in terms of space, especially research space,” said Shawn Kantor, professor of economics and chairman of the academic senate. “We aren’t being funded as a new campus should be,” he said. “There are many things we’d like to do, but the money isn’t there.”

There are three main academic buildings on the campus, with a fourth scheduled to open in early 2010. Some faculty and administrative staff (including Chancellor Kang’s microchip research group) are housed at the former Castle Air Force Base, about six miles north of Merced.

Faculty members also complain about a lack of staff support and about a heavy faculty workload.

“There are not enough senior faculty here, so junior faculty have to bear a disproportionate burden,” said Gregg Herken, professor of history, who was one of the first faculty members hired. “They have to teach their classes, do their research, serve on committees, even recruit new faculty,” all while doing enough original work to gain tenure.

But Herken retains “tempered enthusiasm” for UC Merced’s accomplishments to date. “I was a student at UC Santa Cruz when that campus was new,” he said. “Things were ragged at the edges in the early years, but now things have settled down. I’m sure the same will be true here.”

—William Trombley

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