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San Francisco Chronicle: UC Merced goes from shunned to popular

April 21, 2013

Sunday, April 21, 2013
San Francisco Chronicle

UC Merced goes from shunned to popular

Once-shunned campus now can’t expand fast enough to meet demand

By Nanette Asimov
Merced --- Change is tough. People resist unfamiliar ideas, whether switching to a hybrid car or learning a new computer system. Even the ZIP code took years to fit in.
So it is with UC Merced, the tiny University of California campus that opened in 2005 amid hope and skepticism that the small, dusty tract in the San Joaquin Valley could measure up to the world-class research university into which it was born.
For years, it seemed, the skeptics were right. A thousand students were expected the first year, but just 800 showed up. Just as many newcomers were expected the second year, but only 655 enrolled.
"It was the wrong campus in the wrong place at the wrong time," Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, said in 2006. "There was a belief that you could just hang a UC shingle out and that would attract students."
But if there were doubts, there were dreams. "Being the first is often a big responsibility," none other than Michelle Obama told Merced's first graduating class in 2009.
"You're capable of changing the world, that's for sure," she said, as much to the fledgling campus as to the students who earned their degrees there.
Today, there are clues she was right.
Growth purposely slowed
More than 17,000 students have applied for about 1,600 spots for next fall, both freshmen and transfers.
And with nearly 5,800 students overall, the campus can't expand fast enough to accommodate everyone who wants to enroll. Next year, Merced will intentionally slow its annual growth by half, increasing by just 300 additional students from the average of 750 it's been adding each year.
Nor are most students local. The Bay Area supplies 1 in 4 undergraduates at Merced, more than any other region.
"I actually love it," said Janet Fernandez, 21, a senior from Hayward who was tapping on her laptop the other day as she lunched on minestrone soup and chili cheese fries in the campus cafe. Fernandez had gotten into UCLA, UC Davis and UC Santa Barbara - but chose Merced for reasons that are proving to be popular selling points for the campus.
Classes are mercifully small. Even lecture halls are half the size of those at other UC campus, with no more than 300 students. Academic help is everywhere. Professors and teaching assistants know their students' names. And, unlike most UC campuses, undergraduates are welcome in the research labs.
"I'm actually doing research," said Fernandez, who is studying empathy in young children this semester, and previously examined how TV shows popular with Latina girls portray youthful sexuality.
Research appeals to students
Asked if such opportunities will be lost as the campus grows to more normal UC proportions, Chancellor Dorothy Leland gave an emphatic no.
"It's got nothing to do with our size. It's the campus making undergraduate research a priority - it's going to be part of our DNA," said Leland, seated in her compact, 21st century-style office where books are hidden within her iPad instead of on floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in the usual prexy style.
The research opportunities are so appealing, in fact, that Fernandez has decided to apply to Merced's doctoral program in psychology.
Graduate students, the trademark of any research institution, are still few in number at Merced, with just 329 students studying 11 subjects, from applied mathematics to world cultures. But Merced has seen steady growth from the 37 early adopters who began there in 2005.
Undergraduates are also finding much to like.
"I'm getting probably one of the best opportunities for a quality education here," said freshman Zachary Mondo, 19, who stood with friends outside the library inviting students to sign messages of condolence to the victims of last week's bombings in Boston. He admitted that he wouldn't have felt that way last semester.
"The school takes a while to grow on you," he said, glancing out at a vast expanse of emptiness off to the east. "We're in the middle of a cow field. But this semester, I see that Yosemite is just one and a half hours east. There are rivers for kayaking. The Merced Symphony comes here. And I joined a fraternity, Sigma Chi. That improved my social life and my academics."
UC Merced isn't exactly on a cow field. It's on a golf course. The old water hazards are now ornamental lakes, and the campus is surrounded by 25,000 acres of wetlands studded with endangered fairy shrimp and the occasional bobcat.
Campus growing
Hoping for a grand campus expansion onto the wetlands, UC worked for years to get a permit to build out. An agreement was reached in 2009 to let Merced build on 80 acres in exchange for protecting the rest of the wetlands forever.
But their glee was tempered by fiscal reality. By then, UC had run out of money for such an expensive effort, and expansion plans were shelved.
Today, Leland, who became Merced's third chancellor in 2011, is promoting a far less costly plan for accommodating some 10,000 students by 2020: building up, New York-style.
Already, bulldozers, excavators and welders are working on three sites on campus, building five-story dorms, labs and office space at a total cost of $161 million, mainly from UC. Leland and others hope the state will contribute something in the new state budget.
Merced has been equally clever at making itself more attractive to students.
For years, UC-qualified students who were rejected from more popular UC campuses would automatically win admission to Merced, whether or not they wanted to attend.
"There was a difficulty with that," said J. Michael Thompson, assistant vice chancellor for enrollment. "Students who wanted to study dance, or geology - programs we don't have on our campus - were being admitted." Merced has nearly three times as many majors as it started with, but still offers just 20 majors - few compared with other UC campuses.
The system of accepting a high rate of applicants looked bad on college rankings that applaud selectivity. And it played poorly on the student grapevine when so many students refused to enroll.
So Thompson and others hit on a better idea: Send a friendly invitation to UC-qualified students to consider Merced - and dangle financial aid - instead of issuing a blanket acceptance.
Selectivity grows
Since the "Count Me In" program began in 2011, more students are asking to attend. And more are applying after hearing that their older brothers, sisters, cousins or friends had a good experience. And - a feather in the cap of selectivity - Merced is rejecting more applicants than before, Thompson said.
Allison Wong of San Francisco became intrigued with Merced for yet another reason.
By her own admission, the 20-year-old does not get excited easily. In 2010, she was deciding between San Jose State and the University of New Haven in Connecticut when UC Merced let her know she'd be welcome there.
Hearing that didn't do much for her, despite its being a UC. But she scoped out the school's website anyway. There she read that in 2009, the first graduating class of seniors had their hearts set on having Michelle Obama as their commencement speaker. They sent her thousands of letters, valentines and videos. They got their families involved, too, all trying to persuade Obama to choose Merced for her first graduation address.
Wong was astonished to learn that Obama said yes.
"I thought that was really cool. It's not just any school the first lady will come to," Wong said.
In her speech, Obama told the students that she came because they had inspired her. And that inspired something in Wong.
"This is a new school," she said she thought. "I could help shape it."
Now in her third year studying biology, the even-keeled Wong offers her highest praise for UC Merced.
"I like it."
UC Merced at a glance
Opened: Sept. 2005
Undergraduates: 5,431 in 2012-13
Undergraduate ethnicity: Latino, 40%; Asian American, 28%; white, 17%; black, 7%
First in their family to attend college: 59%
Graduate students: 329 in 2012-13
Faculty: 153 professors
Research awards: $136 million since 2003
Donations to campus: $4 million, with more than half from foundations, and nearly a third from business.
Estimated economic impact: $815 million on the San Joaquin Valley
Environmental ratings: UC Merced is the first American campus to be fully environmentally certified, with LEED ratings of silver.
UC Merced research centers
Sierra Nevada Research Institute: Climate change, wildfires and water in Yosemite National Park
Health Sciences Research Institute: Stem cell biology, bioengineering
UC Merced Energy Research Institute: Sustainable energy
UC Solar: developing solar energy technologies
Center for the Humanities: Issues critical to the San Joaquin Valley and the state
Center for Educational Partnerships: Programs for middle and high schools to increase college attendance in the San Joaquin Valley


Michael Macor, The Chronicle
Tiny UC Merced, which opened in 2005 in the San Joaquin Valley, had 17,000 applications for 1,600 spots in the Fall


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