Opinion

Battling for education, against poverty in rural San Joaquin Valley

UC Merced Chancellor Dorothy Leland at the Merced university.

If you visit the University of California’s newest campus, opened just a decade ago, 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 Merced County in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley, one of California’s most impoverished regions.

The decision to locate a new campus in the San Joaquin Valley was a deliberate response to unacceptable levels of poverty and educational attainment in the fastest-growing but least-developed region of the state.

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University and state officials alike recognized that the addition of 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 understood that the state’s long-term well-being would increasingly depend on tapping the potential of a region too long left behind.

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

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Still, in just ten years, the progress of this young campus has been remarkable.

Unlike many start-ups that failed during the recent deep and prolonged recession, UC Merced continued to open its doors to increasing numbers of students.

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.

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More than 4,000 of these 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 by 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).

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Students walk on campus at UC Merced in Merced, Ca. Monday, April 13, 2015.

Students walk on campus at UC Merced in Merced, Ca. Monday, April 13, 2015.

Faculty members have partnered with industry on research and development opportunities, and model programs for getting more low-income students through the K-12 educational pipeline into post-secondary education have been established.

The campus’s young faculty members have brought millions in research dollars to the region to support projects with enormous potential for benefits in fields ranging from 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.

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Amazingly, the men and women of UC Merced have done all of this despite the deepest and longest-lasting recession in recent history, severe cuts in state funding for education and political upheaval in Sacramento.

Although the pace of campus growth was slowed slightly during the recession, this resilient young campus has been unwavering in its commitment to the San Joaquin Valley and to the futures of the aspiring young students who have come to UC Merced to pursue their dreams.

As we begin our second decade, we are optimistic about our future. Student interest in a quality UC education at a modern, new, intimate campus, where professors work closely with students and involve them in the research process, has never been greater.

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We have accelerated our development plans to increase space as rapidly and cost-effectively as possible through an innovative procurement strategy that blends both public and private resources.

Our $1 billion, fast-track expansion plan, now under review by the Board of Regents, will allow us to add sufficient new facilities by 2020 to accommodate 10,000 students.

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.

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Building UC Merced has not been an easy task. Some critics have argued that it should never have been undertaken.

We ask ourselves every day if we’re making the best use of precious resources and ensuring that the mission we’ve defined for ourselves 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.

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These are the outcomes that remind us why the first UC 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 the chancellor of UC Merced in Callifornia.

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Dorothy Leland

Dorothy Leland is the chancellor of UC Merced in Callifornia. See Archive

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