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Central Valley Women’s Forum Keynote Remarks

March 29, 2017

Chancellor Dorothy Leland
“Challenges and Opportunities for Higher Education in California” 

Leadership California: Central Valley Women’s Forum 

Fresno Pacific University Campus Building
Fresno, California
March 29, 2017


Thank you, Barbara, for that warm introduction.

It is not often that I get to meet with such a remarkable group of women leaders. And that makes this morning special for me. Each of us has had to overcome challenges and leverage opportunities to get where we are today.

And so, I want to begin by congratulating you on your accomplishments to date and for those additional accomplishments surely yet to come.

I have been asked to talk this morning about higher education in California and its future implications for the Valley. Leading the University of California, Merced gives me, perhaps, a unique perspective.

The University of California has been educating students since 1868. In 1871, interestingly enough, the Board of Regents stated that women should be admitted on an equal basis with men. This was almost a century prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which enabled many more women and racial and ethnic minorities to enjoy the benefits of public higher education.

Fast forward across many decades to today, and we can see both progress and challenges in the UC’s longstanding commitment to educating California’s most academically talented students, regardless of their gender, race or ethnicity.

For example, my own campus is the most diverse of any UC campus and indeed stands among leaders in the nation. But, there are fields such as the computer sciences where woman are still seriously underrepresented.

In higher education leadership roles, women and ethnic and racial minorities have made gains, and yet significant work remains to be done to get more of us into the leadership pipeline.

The University of California has 10 campus and 10 chancellors, and I am currently the only woman privileged to hold that title at this time, though am excited to welcome Carol Christ to the Chancellorial Corps when she becomes the chancellor of UC Berkeley this July.

But the privilege is not really in the title but rather in the opportunity that I have been given to help build a brand new University of California campus right here in the Central Valley — one of the most rapidly growing regions of the state, and one that also suffers from high levels of unemployment and low levels of educational attainment.

Over time, the goal is to raise levels of educational attainment, to attract new businesses and industry through our research and development efforts, and to contribute to the overall wellbeing of this vital California region.

And, that’s what makes my work exciting and I hope ultimately transformational.

Building a new university — almost from scratch, in today’s global economy, and amid California’s rapidly changing demographic context — has given me a unique, “from the ground up” perspective on the challenges and opportunities shaping one of the most important sectors in our changing economy and which will truly define our state’s future.

Some of you may have daughters, sons or grandchildren who are about UC Merced’s age, and if you do, you know that from a biological standpoint, the 11-year-old “tween” is all about change.

And so, too, it is has been for my young campus, and this morning I would also like to talk a little bit about how I have led my team through this important growth and development stage.

It has been awkward at times, always challenging, often frustrating, and, on occasion, exhilarating. Ultimately, though, I am enthusiastic about what lies ahead for my campus, the Valley and our state.


The Role of Higher Education in California

Looking at higher education in California today, I think there is cause for celebration and pessimism, all at the same time.

First, the positive.

Everyone knows the elite research institutions. Stanford. Berkeley. They get a lot of attention when colleges and universities are talked about in California.

But I think the real reason our higher education system has historically been celebrated (and even envied) is because of the sheer range of our public post-secondary institutions—from community colleges to the CSUs to one of the world’s most acclaimed public research universities.

This is in many ways the legacy of the Master Plan for Higher Education, that nearly 60-year-old framework still guiding us today.

Its main innovation, what is sometimes called the "California Idea," [i] is that the 10 public research universities of the University of California, the 23 CSU campuses and the 113 community colleges would work cooperatively to educate California’s young people and residents.

Today, as we speak, 2.4 million people are being educated in one way or another in our public universities and colleges.

This model, one that placed public education at the center of civic and economic life, has been highly influential and has been imitated by many states and even some countries. [ii]

Much of the California we know today — from agriculture to the arts to research and technology — has a direct line to how these important institutions have evolved.


Today’s Challenge

But there is a flip slide.

Even though higher education has been a critical driver of the state’s economic progress and personal upward mobility, it is facing the same disruptive forces being seen across the country.

By far, the most significant challenge for most of my peers is adapting to declining levels of public investment. Just 40 years ago, higher education spending accounted for a quarter of California’s General Fund. But today it has dropped to 10 percent. [iii]

And, as many know, the impact of this dramatic financial shift has been felt in the number of students who can be admitted, the cost of attendance for parents and their students [iv], and the availability of classes[v].

Why exactly this is happening is up for debate, but I do know this: In California, and in the Valley especially, it is happening amidst a diverse and rapidly growing population at a time when affordable access to public higher education is perhaps more critical than ever before [vi].

To me, this retreat from public higher education seems counter productive. On average, college graduates have better economic outcomes than those who do not hold a bachelor’s degree.

And when bad times occur, such as the Great Recession, they hit less educated workers especially hard. The experts even tell us that if current economic trends continue, by 2030, there will be more jobs in California requiring bachelor’s degree than there will be graduates — so it seems there is demand.

And then there’s another important component, which is the moral obligation to ensure that the young people attending today’s elementary and high schools, from Bakersfield to Madera to Stockton, have the same access to higher education as previous generations.

So, as a leader charged with building a new institution in this climate, I know that many of the old ways of thinking will not work, and that the way forward for public education in California demands creativity and innovation from its leaders and the public we serve.


Merced and the Central Valley Opportunity

How do I know this? What have I seen?

Eleven years ago, UC Merced opened its doors with 875 students and three buildings. Today we serve approximately 7,000 students; over half of whom are women, and for the vast majority, UC Merced is their campus of choice.

Students have come to recognize that UC Merced is a special place of opportunity, and because of that we are actually experiencing a higher percent increase in applications than any other University of California campus.

But there is more. We lead the University of California in the enrollment of first-generation students (71 percent), underrepresented students and students from financially challenged backgrounds — 99 percent are from California, more than 30 percent are from the Valley, and more than 55 percent are majoring in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines.

These are facts that highlight UC Merced’s role as an engine of social mobility.

When they graduate, our students will help expand California’s economy and their progress should inspire us and give us hope for the future. As one the members of the UC Board of Regents recently said: “As important as Berkeley was to the State of California when it was founded, Merced is as important to the State of California today.”

We serve the demographic future of California, and I believe we have been doing it very, very well. We started this journey with a handful of faculty and staff — and no alumni. Today we have nearly 400 world-class faculty, 1,200 exceptional staff, and over 6,000 alumni.

UC Merced boasts an incredibly talented faculty, and they are rapidly gaining recognition around the world for research.

Their work ranges from that of Professor Emilia Huerta-Sanchez, who has identified genetic variations that could have implications for advances in precision medicine, to that of Professor Patricia LiWang, who is working on advanced tools to prevent the spread of viruses.

Because of their efforts, UC Merced has earned a research/high Carnegie ranking, and we are by far the youngest university to appear on this distinguished list.

Just this past year, our faculty brought home major grants from the National Science Foundation, NASA and the National Institute of Health, aimed at strengthening the college-going pipeline in science and engineering for underrepresented groups.

Our professors are part of the community as well. From the Dinner with a Scientist initiative, which invites high school girls to tour the campus and visit labs led by female scientists; to regional efforts focused on issues related to Valley Fever and other urgent societal challenges.

I am beyond proud of these accomplishments, and so many other community initiatives that we participate in. If you ever visit Merced — and I invite you to come — you will sense there is a strong spirit of connection to the region.


How We Got Here: The Short Term Dilemma

I list these accomplishments because from our earliest days, we have had to be creative and inventive to build our young campus in all of its dimensions.

When I arrived six years ago, our short-term needs were apparent. The campus was experiencing a serious space shortage that not only affected the educational experience of current students but also our capacity to serve additional students. The state was in the throes of a deep recession, and state funding for new academic and research buildings had stagnated.

And so, our challenge was to find a way to support the growth of our campus during a time when new state investment was nearly nonexistent. We had to think outside of the box, take risks and be creative.


What We Did: 2020 Project

The result of that creative process is now known as the Merced 2020 Project — a $1.3 billion investment in additional classrooms, laboratories and residence halls realized through a relatively new kind of public-private partnership, never before used in the United States in higher education.

We had to adapt a public-private partnership model used in other sectors — primarily from public sector infrastructure projects such as bridges and courthouses — to a new context in response to our own particular needs. As a result, in a span of just four years, 13 new buildings will be added to the campus, including housing, classrooms and laboratories.


Creativity: The Roots of Innovation

How did we do it? What lessons did we learn that can be applied to the challenges currently faced by public higher education in the State of California?

The first lesson is simple: Get off the gerbil wheel.

As a teenager, my son had gerbils, and their cages included wheels that spun around and around and around, propelled by the running animal. Think of the gerbil wheel as the customary options that one considers in looking for a solution.

Now suppose that none of the options are viable and yet your organization continues to consider them over and over and over again. You are stuck on the gerbil wheel and will never get off unless you begin a process of looking for new options, new solutions to the challenge you are facing.

The second lesson is to look outside your own industry for models that might work for you if appropriately modified. We borrowed an infrastructure finance model that has been used for projects such as bridges and courthouses, but never for a project of our scale and never in higher education. We had to think carefully and creatively about whether and how the model could be modified to work for us.

The third lesson is to realign your organization to make it work. We have all heard the slogan, “Get the right people on the bus,” but we sometimes forget that the bus itself may need to be reconfigured to get to its desired destination. In our case, we had to reconfigure the bus by realigning talent and units in order to execute the Merced 2020 Project.

The fourth and final lesson that I will note here is to keep your eye on the prize. That’s what will motivate you, spark your creativity, and sustain you through difficult times. Our prize was the mission of UC Merced — the reasons it was created, its role in creating greater economic prosperity and raising levels of educational attainment in the Central Valley. Without growth, this could not happen, and without facilities to support students, faculty and research, growth could not happen.

When I consider the fiscal challenges facing public higher education in California as a whole and in this region in particular, these lessons strike me as important. If we cannot reasonably expect the state to make significant new investments in public higher education, and if we are also passionate about its importance to the state and its citizens, then we need to focus our attention and creativity on finding alternative ways to deliver our missions.

We may need to streamline our internal operations to increase efficiency without sacrificing quality — our buses may need to be overhauled. We may need to borrow and adapt ideas from other industries. Whatever it is that we need to do, we can’t remain on the gerbil wheel, spinning and spinning and spinning with no forward movement.

I won’t pretend that the path forward in the current funding environment will be easy. We encountered enormous obstacles along the way to the Merced 2020 Project and had to chip away at them, one by one. Innovation requires risk, and risk is scary.

Change itself, for many, is scary. And, proposed solutions can be controversial. Universities that have implemented significant reductions in athletics for the purpose of redirecting resources to academics have been met with a firestorm of criticism.

Likewise for universities that have increased out of state enrollment — at a significantly higher tuition cost than for in-state students — in order to hire additional faculty, offer more classes and enhance student support services. Online course delivery, which requires less brick and mortar, has proven effective for more mature adult learners and much less effective for younger, less mature students.

In the end, we need to keep chipping away at it, with the right motives and purposes in mind. I am passionate about the mission of UC Merced and the students and region it was created to serve. I know firsthand how the success of low-income, first-generation and minority students can lift families and communities.

I have witnessed the drive, determination, creativity and spirit that enable these students to succeed, and what their success means to the future of our region and state.

And so, what drives me is a desire to do what I can to ensure that these students, and the generations to come, have the same opportunities to benefit from affordable, high-quality public higher education that we have had.

Thanks for listening. I look forward to your questions.

[i] “The California Idea and American Higher Education, 1850 to the 1960 Master Plan”

[ii] “In the 1990s. China adopted a California template. Its system design structured research-intensive universities focused on global science and provincial universities, the equivalent of the CSU campuses, and to two-year colleges with a generalist mandate, the equivalent of California’s community colleges. These distinctions are held in place by a classification system along American lines” The Dream is Over: The Crisis of Clark Kerr’s California Idea of Higher Education . UC Press. (2016)

[iv] In response to funding cuts, UC and CSU increased tuition dramatically. Over the past 20 years, tuition has tripled at both UC and CSU. However, the state financial aid system (Cal Grants), combined with federal and institutional aid, pays the tuition of more than half of the 674,015 full-time-equivalent students in 2016–17. A majority (55%) of UC students and about half (51%) of CSU students pay no tuition. Though both systems have kept tuition flat during the recovery from the Great Recession, each system proposed to raise tuition in 2017–18—the first increase since 2010.

[v] Students often take more than four years to graduate. Just 16% of CSU students and 61% of UC students graduate on time.

[vi] These funding cuts have been felt most strongly at the University of California, where funding per full-time-equivalent student fell from slightly more than $23,000 to about $8,000. CSU funding per student has also fallen by about 25% since 1976–77 from slightly more than $11,000 per student to slightly less than $9,000.


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