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Op-Ed: Bringing UC to Merced was the right, best choice

September 5, 2015

The Modesto Bee

Dorothy Leland: Bringing UC to Merced was the right, best choice

By Dorothy Leland

If you visit the University of California’s newest campus, opened just a decade ago in Merced, you will see cows grazing in nearby fields – protected grasslands and vernal pools that provide unique educational and research opportunities for students.

These fields and cows are part of the charm of this rural campus, situated in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley.

The decision to locate a new campus in the fastest-growing but least-developed region of the state was both deliberate and inspired. University and state officials alike recognized that a new campus would provide a much-needed boost to a region plagued for decades by high levels of poverty, unemployment and chronic health problems – along with low levels of educational attainment and economic growth.

They also understood that the full impact of this decision would not be immediate but would occur gradually over the decades as the campus reached maturity.

Still, in just 10 years, progress has been remarkable.

Unlike many startups that failed during the recent deep and prolonged recession, UC Merced continued to open its doors to increasing numbers of students. Enrollment now tops 6,600 students, up from 875 in our inaugural year.

Importantly, these students are predominantly from first-generation, minority and low-income families who, through hard work and perseverance, are able to meet the rigorous University of California admissions requirements. More than 4,000 students are now proud graduates who have gone on to pursue advanced degrees, start local businesses or take positions in professions that are vital to the region’s prosperity.

UC Merced also has made significant contributions to the regional economy, creating thousands of permanent new jobs and many thousands more construction jobs. Its regional economic impact has exceeded $1.3 billion ($2.5 billion statewide).

Faculty members have partnered with industry on research and development opportunities and brought millions and millions of research dollars to the region to support projects with enormous potential benefits in fields such as water conservation, solar energy, smart chips, cancer research and health disparities. As these research programs mature, so will the campus’s ability to attract new industry to the region.

Model programs for getting more low-income students through the K-12 educational pipeline into post-secondary education have also been established.

As we begin our second decade, we are optimistic about our future.

We have accelerated our development plans to increase space as rapidly and cost-effectively as possible. Our $1 billion, fast-track expansion plan, now under review by the Board of Regents, will add sufficient new facilities by 2020 to accommodate a student body of 10,000. The project is expected to create 10,800 local construction jobs (12,600 statewide), 400 permanent staff positions and many more jobs within the community while pumping $1.9 billion into the regional economy ($2.4 billion statewide), including direct and indirect effects.

Building UC Merced has not been an easy task. Some critics have argued it should never have been undertaken. We ask ourselves every day if we’re making the best use of precious resources and ensuring that our mission is right for the people of the Valley and the state.

Then we look at the many students we’ve inspired, the investments we’ve made, the people we’ve put to work, the breakthroughs we’ve achieved in our research labs, the relationships we’ve built in the community, and we think of their ripple effects today and well into the future as our reach extends, like a wave advancing on a far beachhead.

These are the outcomes that remind us why the first campus for the University of Califorinia was built more than 160 years ago.

And we ask the only question that really matters: How could we not be here?

Dorothy Leland is chancellor of UC Merced. She wrote this for the Merced Sun-Star and The Modesto Bee.

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