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Chancellor Emerita Dorothy Leland
Saturday, January 25, 2020


Thank you to the California Association of Independent Schools for this opportunity to talk about two things for which I have real passion – the University of California at Merced and the need to better serve California’s underrepresented students.

As you will see, these two passions are inextricably intertwined, for Merced was founded to serve educationally underserved populations, primarily in the San Joaquin Valley … and we are now thriving precisely because we have been successful in providing that service, not just for those from the region but also for underrepresented, low-income, and first-generation students from throughout California.

As I tell you part of the UC Merced story today, I hope along the way to provide some insight into how some strategies that worked for us might also work for you.

Cows are a prominent feature of the Merced landscape. To drive to UC Merced, one exits Highway 99 and then winds eastward either through Merced’s historic downtown or past farmland and pasture, where the Sierra Foothills just begin.

At one point on Bellevue Avenue, UC Merced suddenly rises into view – a modern, gleaming, state-of-the-art campus, yet with architecture very much in keeping with its surroundings that remain mostly farmland, pasture and protected wetlands.

And so, right up to our campus boundary there are grazing cows – lots of grazing cows.

One of my favorite experiences, early in the fall term, is to watch our new students, many of them arriving at Merced from very urban upbringings in Los Angeles or San Francisco or San Diego, encountering for the first time in their lives … cows. There are literally thousands of student selfies with cows—and the cows remain infinitely more popular with students than the chancellor!

This is just one of the many new experiences we provide our students, many of whom otherwise might not have had the opportunity to leave their homes and attend a University of California campus, with its rigorous undergraduate teaching as well as the opportunity to participate in cutting-edge research projects even as undergraduates.

What we also now offer our students, along with the cows, is the distinction of attending the youngest institution ever to be designated as a Research 2 institution, and an undergraduate education that is now nationally-ranked by U.S. News and World Report as the nation’s best – No. 1! – in achieving graduation rates that outperform expectations.

Here are a few more brag points for this 14-year-old campus. UC Merced has become first in the nation for students receiving need-based financial aid. It is exceeded only by UC Berkeley in the percentage of graduates who go on for their PhDs. It is recognized by multiple publications as one of the nation’s best universities for social mobility, and it was recently ranked by Washington Monthly as No. 8 in the country for first-generation student academic performance.

I will try to explain how this came to be – all in just fourteen years, the age of some of your high school freshmen.

But to do so I need to give you a little sense of our history and the why’s and how’s of how we came to be.

Spoiler alert: it is a story of grit, determination, adversity turned into opportunity … and a little bit of luck.

In his introduction, Mark gave you a Merced native’s perception of UC Merced’s founding.

There is no overstating the sense of pride that came with the Regents decision, after decades of local lobbying, to finally build a campus in the often-overlooked San Joaquin Valley.

But there is another side to the Merced story – one that reflects the time in which we live -- the beginning of the 21stcentury, a time quite different from just a generation ago when the last UC campuses were established. Campuses built in the north … the south … and up and down the coast. Campuses that, in short order, would spawn new local industries and expand the California economy.

As a noted UC Berkeley sociologist once observed, the 1950s and ’60s for the University of California was a golden age: California’s leaders wanted UC to grow … demographic and economic pressures meant it had to grow … the availability of substantial financial resources meant it could grow … and there were no political forces to prevent the system from growing.

But if stars had been aligned for the UC a generation earlier, they seemed to be crossed after the Board of Regents finally approved in 1995 … on the eve of a new century … a campus in Merced.

By then, the debate had shifted among State leaders to questions about whether the UC should even continue to grow, much less by building a costly new campus far from the state’s population centers in the agricultural heartland of California. I still recall, shortly after arriving on campus as chancellor, a headline from a national publication that reflected these sentiments. It read, “UC Merced: Boondoggle U” and the article was peppered with “they never should have built it” and “it is bound to fail” sentiments.

During these early years, demographic and economic pressures were in Merced’s favor, but the financial resources were not – the state budget was strapped, the worst recession since the Great Depression was looming, and the costs of building STEM-intensive research universities had skyrocketed since the last campus opened in Irvine three decades earlier.

Meanwhile, political forces – from labor laws to environmental regulations – all seemed to conspire against the fledgling campus.

By sheer grit, the campus broke ground – pushed from its original site by environmental concerns to an old municipal golf course. But its opening of roughly a million square feet of classrooms, laboratories, offices and student services facilities was soon followed by the recession whose depths no one saw coming – a recession that pushed unemployment rates in the San Joaquin Valley to among the highest in the nation.

UC Merced, full of promise and potential, appeared to be stalled – a mere shadow of its aspirations for the valley and the state.

Yet from adversity we found opportunity.

California’s budget constraints forced UC Merced to rethink its entire delivery structure – from administrative services to academic instruction. Unlike older, more established institutions facing the same cost pressures, UC Merced could design from the ground up systems and structures that acknowledge what every major public research institution in the nation now faces: a broken public higher education business model.

Declining State public support also meant fewer capital dollars for new classrooms and laboratories – a crippling blow to Merced’s aspirations to become a top research institution and to expand access to more deserving California students. The solution was an innovative $1.3 billion public-private partnership that is the first of its kind for a public higher education institution in the United States. “Merced 2020,” as it’s called, is doubling the size of the Merced campus – achieving in just four year what it took other campuses a generation to build.

Society’s emerging challenges of climate change and California drought became UC Merced research opportunities. The campus attracted faculty who are distinguished not just in their respective academic fields but in their innovative thinking and pioneering spirit that is spurring advancements in fields as diverse as the environmental sciences, including water and air quality; big-data analysis and computer science; mechanical, environmental and materials engineering; political science; and much, much more.

And despite the recession, California’s college-age population growth fueled enrollment at Merced, first in fits and starts then in a steady flow as its distinction as a small, research-intensive institution became known. Students came from rural Central Valley communities, eager for the chance to attend a public research university close to their homes and families, but they also came from the urban north and from the south. More than just the sheer numbers of students were their profile – lower-income, first-generation, undocumented and underrepresented … a true reflection of the changing face of California and its future.

The transformation is dramatic.

In the fall of 2005, when UC Merced enrollment was just 874 students – 37 of them graduate students -- the largest ethnic group were Asians, at 37 percent. Whites represented 27 percent of the undergraduate population and Latinos/Hispanics followed at 24 percent.

Just four years later, in 2009, enrollment stood at just over 3,000 undergraduates. In a few short years, the proportion of whites had fallen slightly, to 22 percent, with Asians and Latinos each representing about a third of the undergraduate population. Just two years later – in 2011, the year I became chancellor --- Latinos surpassed Asians, representing 37 percent of the undergraduate population.

Exponential growth among Latina/Latino students has followed, with the result today that they represent a remarkable 56 percent of our more than 8,000-student undergraduate enrollment – by far the largest ethnic group followed by Asians, at 19 percent. And even among this Asian group, we’re talking a unique profile – Hmongs, Vietnamese, Cambodian … Asian groups that largely have been underrepresented in higher education.

A similar transformation occurred among students who were first-generation. In fall 2005, the split between those who were not first in their families to attend college slightly outnumbered those who were first generation. By the fall of 2011, that ratio was reversed, with first generation students just slightly outnumbering those who were not first generation. Today, fully 74 percent of our undergraduates are first generation students.

How did this happen? I would say three things: Demographic destiny, hard work (coupled with some sound strategies), and perhaps most importantly, the power of word-of-mouth.

Let me start with the demographic destiny of California, of which each of you are aware – and why the number one goal of your strategic plan reads: “Assist schools in better serving underrepresented students — particularly Latino and Latina students— so that CAIS school communities more clearly reflect local, regional, and state populations.”

While Merced opened at precisely the wrong economic and budgetary time, it was exactly the right time to meet the demographic shift occurring across California. At the same time, other UC campuses were heavily impacted. After UC Riverside and UC Santa Cruz, UC Merced was the only place left to grow.

In the beginning, it was largely this capacity challenge that fueled UC Merced’s enrollment. As you probably know, the University of California has a longstanding commitment to ensure that a UC education remains accessible to all Californians who meet its admissions standards. If eligible students do not receive offers of admission from the UC campuses to which they applied, they are offered an opportunity to be admitted to another UC campus through the so-called “referral pool.”

In the early years, UC Merced – still new and unknown – was dependent on this referral pool, and many of the students in this pool were underrepresented minorities. Fast forward 14 year, and the referral pool now plays a significantly diminished role in a student’s decision to come to UC Merced. Today, less than 1% of our students come through the referral pool—a fact that corresponds to a steady and dramatic upswing in direct or so-called native application. And so, while demographics and impaction were certainly factors, these alone cannot explain our success in attracting students or the student diversity that is the face of UC Merced today. How did we become, for several years running, the fastest growing public university in the nation? And how did we become, in just 14 year, a Hispanic majority institution?

It took a lot of hard work and a bag full of recruitment and retention strategies, some of which may be unique to us as a public higher education institution but others that may be helpful to you.

The hard work began with painstaking outreach to high schools across the state, describing in the earliest years a university that hadn’t yet taken shape in a region few knew about. We formed educational partnerships with under-performing schools, mostly in the San Joaquin Valley, helping students achieve college readiness in the hope – just the hope – they might decide to apply to UC Merced.

Over time, we began to target our recruitment, focusing on geographical areas where large numbers of Latino and Latina students live. For example, in Los Angeles, we focus our recruitment on East Los Angeles, home to a greater percentage of low-income and diverse populations – and which now has become one of our largest sources of Latina/Latino student enrollment.

In deploying our limited recruitment resources, among our priorities was investing in bilingual recruiters and other key student affairs staff. Like you, we are recruiting students who have good English language skills, but many of their parents are primarily fluent in Spanish. Speaking with them in their native language demonstrates respect and acknowledges their culture.

We came to understand how much parents of Latina/Latino students influence their decision- making, and so we invested in communicating closely with parents to convince them, as much as their students, in the value and benefits of a UC Merced education. We even provide Spanish-language sessions for parents at our new student orientations.

A more obvious strategy is structuring financial aid and discount packages to minimize the need for families, many of them low-income, to incur debt. Thanks to the UC’s “Blue and Gold Plan,” the majority of our Latino/Latina students pay no tuition. But sticker shock is real, along with the ingrained belief that families cannot afford a UC education for their children and a very strong—and understandable—resistance to incurring debt. Extra efforts with parents are often required to overcome these barriers.

We also came to recognize the important of networking with community, state and national organizations that have a strong interest in the social mobility and academic success of Latino/Latina students. We not only learned more about Latino/Latina communities through these networks but also, over time, benefitted from their involvement our efforts to recruit, retain, and provide financial support for these students.

And finally, we recognize that we don’t know what we don’t know, so we created a campus-based student advisory group to focus on improving the campus climate for underrepresented students. Today, as a Hispanic-majority institution, students come to a campus where they hear others speaking Spanish — or at least Spanglish — eat familiar foods and enjoy the music and arts from their own and other cultures. “Word-of-mouth” is a powerful recruitment tool — the more that our students feel welcome on campus and are successful in achieving their academic goals, the more likely it becomes that their friends and neighbors will consider UC Merced as a school of choice.

With time, we have developed a rich and compelling story – one of a niche campus with all the advantages of the University of California, but at a smaller, more intimate size with incredible student diversity and abundant opportunities to work closely with faculty members.

This is the story more and more of our students went home and told their friends and relatives. And this, in itself, has had a powerful recruitment effect, amplified by national publications such as The New York Times, which proclaimed UC Merced as California’s university of choice for Latina/Latino students.

“If you build it, they will come,” says the corn farmer in “Field of Dreams.” But it isn’t as simple as that. It isn’t enough just to ensure that students of the San Joaquin Valley and California have access to UC undergraduate and graduate education that is second to none. Access doesn’t guarantee success.

The reason that US News & World Report ranked UC Merced as No. 1 in the country for outperforming expected graduation rates is because we have adopted proven best practices for ensuring that students do not just graduate, but that their success continues through their lifetimes – to the benefit of their families, their communities and their state.

Our strategies include a two-year on-campus residency requirement … a Summer Bridge program that immerses low-income, first-generation students in campus life before their freshman year, as well as other academic preparation programs once they get to Merced … living-learning communities in which students share academic and social life with like-minded peers … and centralized academic advising that is focused on the individual student rather than a field of study.

All this is enhanced by our size and intimacy – a place where students know even the Chancellor by her first name. Combine that with our growing academic distinction, and UC Merced is emerging as a niche among UC campuses -- small, rigorous, diverse, and distinctive … where students can have one-on-one contact with the faculty, rich undergraduate research experiences, and a close community of other students from similar backgrounds and ethnicities.

But as The New York Times recently observed, it is something of a paradox: The future of the state depends on whether the University of California can grow to be more like Merced, and the future of Merced depends on whether it can grow to be more like other campuses.

As you acknowledge in your strategic plan, this is exactly the challenge CAIS faces.

How do you retain what is legendary about your membership – your reputations and your histories … your demonstrated commitment to scholarship and citizenship … your graduates that are among the most sought after by admissions offices across the nation – and make the changes you must to attract a Latina/Latino population that represents the future leadership of our diverse state and nation?

UC Merced’s challenge is the inverse: how we do we retain our distinction as the campus of choice for increasing numbers of Latino/Latina students, and yet become more like other UC campuses in regard to financial viability, research breadth and academic distinction?

I have posed for you what I believe is a false choice. I reject entirely the notion that we must be one and not the other. I think UC Merced and the CAIS membership can and should be both protective of our distinctions while at the same time striving to serve the broader emerging California citizenry.

I cannot presume to speak for you and your challenges. But for UC Merced it means finding a way to come of age in a time of continuing political ambivalence about the UC system. We remain shortchanged by the State budget, and the lack of capital dollars means that our current physical growth trajectory – which will take UC Merced to 10,000 students – likely will be followed by a long pause.

This may be a very good thing, allowing Merced to further establish itself reputationally even as it retains its small size and intimacy. But it will disappoint a region that benefits economically from our continued growth, and it will present significant financial challenges in a system where new resources come primarily through state dollars linked to growth and student tuition.

With this formula, UC Merced will continue to struggle to expand its great work in enhancing social mobility, student-centered programs, and faculty research.

Our campus is full of spunk and creativity, which gives me faith that it will find the best way to move forward. My own days as chancellor are over. I have, like those cows grazing next to the campus, put myself out to pasture, knowing that the next phase of UC Merced’s development will require fresh vision and energy.

But I will forever care about UC Merced because I care deeply about social mobility, the State of California and its future.

I am myself a native Californian, born and raised in rural southern California. And I was very much an underrepresented student as a woman of my generation, with mixed ethnicity, with parents who were not college educated and from rural geographic origins.

I got my chance, thanks to a school that accepted my handwritten letter of application and provided me with a scholarship, and since then it has been my obligation—and joy—to do what I can to give others the opportunities they will need to emerge as the future leaders that our communities, state, and nation will desperately need.

Among the things I am most proud about UC Merced is that it, more than any other UC campus, still adheres to the original land grant mission of the University of California.

This mission, enshrined in the Morrill Act that was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln, had three critical goals: first, to educate citizens from all walks of life, not just the elite; second, to advance research into cutting-edge local economic needs of the day; and third, to stay closely tied to the regions they serve.

California benefited mightily from the land-grant mission. UC educated generations of Californians from all walks of life, and its research jump-started local economies, from agriculture and viticulture to engineering and biotechnology, and helped transform California into the world’s fifth-largest economy.

Nearly 160 years later, the American economy is much more globalized, and the role of higher education has changed as even land-grant universities expand enrollment to more out-of-state and international students and broaden their research portfolios –a compromise that seemed necessary for survival as state revenues sharply declined.

But at its core, UC Merced still adheres to the fundamental principles of the original land-grant mission.

First, we, more than any other UC, are educating California’s emerging citizenry, many more of whom are low-income, underrepresented, and first-generation.

Second, we are advancing research into the cutting-edge fields of our day – agriculture and engineering, yes, but also climate change and its impacts on water, still the lifeblood of California’s economy, and other pressing issues such as health care disparities, Valley fever, and the so called “Super Bug” (a germ that has formed resistance to multiple drugs that once treated the infection caused by the germ).

And third, we remain closely tied to the region that fought to have us here—in the heart of California—that still faces daunting challenges but is, I believe, on the rise. Indeed, I know that together was will rise—a campus and its communities.

I applaud your commitment—which is the same as ours—to serving the diverse populations in your communities. This diversity of the future face of California’s leadership, and I know that with will, persistence, and good strategy that is exactly what you can do.

Thank you.