On Sept. 5, the University of California Merced in the Central Valley will officially become the first UC campus to open its doors in 40 years and the first American research university to be established in the 21st century.
Starting with a student body of 1,000 undergraduate and graduate students, the campus is expected to expand to accommodate as many as 25,000 students over the next three decades and become an engine for economic growth in an area where unemployment and poverty rates exceed California averages. That's why Sept. 5 will be a day of jubilation for many beyond the Central Valley.
"UCLA welcomes UC Merced as a sister campus," said Chancellor Albert Carnesale. "The University of California's tenth campus will spark economic progress in the San Joaquin Valley, and will enhance educational access for qualified students throughout the state."
It has been 17 long years in the making, over hurdles that even the best planners couldn't have foreseen, including the loss of the campus's original site when rare fairy shrimp were found living in wetlands there, a crippling state budget crisis and a recall election that cast a cloud of uncertainty over UC Merced's existence.
"We were right in the middle of a major political fight for our very survival, and then suddenly everything changed," recalled Administrative Vice Chancellor Lindsay Desrochers, who oversees physical planning of the campus, among her other tasks.
After the state's fiscal crisis had delayed the opening of UC Merced for a year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger gave his support for opening the campus this year, signing a 2005-06 state budget that includes $24 million covering its launch and continuing operation.
"Then we ran into construction cost escalation that was unprecedented in the last 20 years," said Desrochers, a UCLA alumna. And the torrential rains of winter put construction further behind schedule.
Through all this, Chancellor Carol Tomlinson-Keasey has remained upbeat and philosophical. The struggle to build a UC campus in a populated area with little access to quality higher education and no college-going tradition among its families parallels the difficulty of building the Eiffel Tower or the Sydney Opera House, she said.
"In this day and age, you just have to go through all of the very complicated, difficult processes that it takes to bring a major institution on line," she noted. "We'll soon take our place right there with the Eiffel Tower and the opera house."
When classes begin Sept. 6 at this 2,000-acre rural campus, its undergraduate and graduate students, including 850 freshmen, will make history. UC Merced has 60 founding faculty, three schools (Engineering; Natural Sciences; and Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts), but no academic departments.
For now, the campus consists of a student village with housing for 600, a central plant and telecommunications building and the Leo and Dottie Kolligian Library, which will also function as a classroom and administrative office building, an IT center and a de facto student union until more buildings soon come on line.
About a third of UC Merced's students will come from Southern California, another third from the Central Valley and a third from the Bay Area.
"The statistic that blows me away the most is that 47% of these entering students will be the first in their families to go to college," said Tomlinson-Keasey. Approximately 32% of the freshman class self-report that they are underrepresented minorities; 68% are receiving financial aid.
Bruins may gasp at how isolated UC Merced looks, Desrochers advised, "but just remember what UCLA looked like in 1927. The campus was out in the middle of nowhere. If you look at old pictures of the campus, it looks just like us."