The Magazine

Boondoggle U.

With taxpayers struggling to support the University of California, why did the state build a tenth campus in the middle of nowhere?

Apr 23, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 30 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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Merced, California

Photo of The University of California, Merced, in December 2004

The University of California, Merced, in December 2004

AP / Gary Kazanjian

"The middle of nowhere.” That’s the phrase I heard from several Californians when I told them that I was writing an article about UC Merced, the newest and most geographically remote of the state’s 10-campus chain of academically elite, research-focused public universities. Opening in 2005 at a construction cost of $500 million, embroiled in environmental controversies despite its desire to showcase itself as a “green” campus, and enrolling to date only 5,200 students out of the 25,000 projected to materialize by 2030, the University of California, Merced, located about 100 miles inland in the state’s searing and economically depressed rural interior, is the most financially and politically precarious member of the UC system.

It is precarious at a precarious time. The broke (and some say bankrupt) state of California, bedeviled by a $13 billion deficit plus another $700 billion in unfunded pension liabilities for its 225,000 employees, cut funding for the entire UC system by $750 million this year (the system’s overall annual budget is about $20 billion, not counting sponsored research and teaching hospitals). The brand new UC Merced, with a $100 million annual budget, got an exemption from the across-the-board cuts entailing layoffs, furloughs, and program eliminations at the other nine campuses, but that only seems to have exacerbated hard feelings within the UC system. Over the past couple of years, as California has spiraled downward into a 12 percent unemployment-generating recession, faculty and administrators at the more prestigious and prosperous campuses have either called openly for UC Merced’s closure or hinted at withdrawing their own well-endowed campuses from the state system and going private.

Although applications for freshman slots at UC Merced have risen impressively over the past two years, and the campus is currently enrolled to the brim in terms of classroom space, it still ranks last among the 10 UC campuses as California high school seniors’ academic destination of choice. UC Merced accepts nearly 80 percent of those who apply, and it is the only one of the 10 campuses to remain in the UC system’s “referral pool.” Under California law all high school seniors in the state who either rank in the top 9 percent of applicants as measured by grades and standardized-test scores, or in the top 9 percent of their own high school classes, are entitled to automatic admission to one of the UC campuses. Beyond that minimum threshold, the admissions process can be highly competitive, with the system’s flagship campus, the 36,000-student UC Berkeley, and its most sought-after campus, the 40,000-student, Beverly Hills-adjacent UCLA, garnering the most applications and able to pick and choose among their would-be freshmen, accepting perhaps one out of four.

The applicants rejected by the UC campuses where they applied go into the referral pool, for admission to safety-net campuses with empty freshman slots. For several years UC Riverside, located in the heart of the Inland Empire smog belt 50 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, shared reserve-pool status with UC Merced at the bottom of the heap. Nowadays, UC Riverside has plenty of takers. It is reasonably close to L.A., and the recession makes its $12,000-a-year tuition (standard at all UC campuses) look like a bargain compared with that of private colleges in Southern California. That leaves UC Merced as “the Rodney Dangerfield of the system,” as one professor whom I interviewed phrased it. Indeed, until UC Merced slightly altered its acceptance process last year to focus on students who expressed actual interest in attending, it was not unusual for high school seniors feeling depressed because they didn’t get into Berkeley to find themselves surprised by “Congratulations!” letters from a campus of whose existence, much less location, they might not have been entirely aware.

And yet, after spending three days at UC Merced, talking to students, professors, and administrators, I found it difficult not to root for this beleaguered academic underdog that seemed determined to fight off the extinction for which many of its critics have dearly wished. Perhaps it was UC Merced’s encouragingly aggressive choice of mascot: the bobcat, a feline predator with impressive killing skills. The next-youngest campuses in the UC system—the 26,000-student UC Irvine in Orange County and the 16,000-student UC Santa Cruz, on the redwoods coastline 60 miles south of San Francisco—both of which opened their doors in 1965, chose as their mascots the anteater and the banana slug respectively (the latter was an especially appropriate choice for Santa Cruz, with its enduring reputation as the hippie branch of UC). Most impressive was the devotion to their new alma mater of a range of UC Merced students across the ideological spectrum from College Republicans to Occupy, whose handful of tents and banner reading “We Are the 99 Percent” fronts a stand of bushes across from the campus library.

“I got a full ride at Berkeley, but I went to high school in Madera [about 35 miles south of Merced], so I decided to stay close to home,” said Michael Fincher, a 2011 graduate and cofounder of the campus College Republicans chapter who is currently interning with a conservative think tank near Washington, D.C. (Fincher and another 2011 graduate, Oliver Darcy, became notorious on campus for producing a series of “Exposing Leftists” videos for YouTube that won them an appearance on Glenn Beck’s Fox News program.) “It’s a new campus, and there are a lot of leadership opportunities,” said Fincher. “You can petition for new courses if you want them. All the professors there know me, so I can get personal recommendations. Most of the classes have about 15 to 25 students [in contrast to the lower-division class sizes at, say, Berkeley, which can top 700]. There are only five classrooms on [the UC Merced campus] that hold more than 100 students.” About a third of UC Merced’s students are Central Valley locals like Fincher; another third hail from the San Francisco Bay area, and the rest are mostly from Southern California.

Still, there is the middle-of-nowhere factor. The campus is only technically in Merced, population 80,000, one of the many farm towns strung along Highway 99, which, as readers of The Grapes of Wrath may recall, bisects the Central Valley, the 450-mile-long, 50-mile-wide, pancake-flat swath of ultra-fertile land running between California’s two major mountain ranges. Merced County is almost smack-dab in the middle of the valley’s long southern end, which has its own name, the San Joaquin Valley. As it was in the days of Steinbeck’s Depression novel, the Central Valley is the most productive agricultural region in America, thanks to generous snow runoff from the Sierra Nevada and an ingenious manmade network of canals, pumps, ponds, and irrigation ditches that since the early 20th century has enabled Central Valley farmers to grow and export a dense and bewildering array of crops: nuts, figs, kiwis, olives, melons, stone fruits, grapes (mostly for raisins, since the blistering, 100-degree-plus summer temperatures of the Valley sugar the fruit so excessively that winemaking above jug grade is impossible), corn, rice, wheat, cotton, alfalfa, beans, sweet potatoes, beets, and vegetables. The bounteous and expertly farmed Central Valley supplies as much as one-quarter of America’s produce.

Without irrigation-network water—and the arid, hilly country northeast of the city where the UC Merced campus is located falls into that category—the Central Valley would be useful mostly for low-density cattle-ranching, the primary occupation of the Spanish settlers during the 18th and early 19th centuries. UC Merced sits atop a hill that is surrounded by—not much, unless you count its 7,000 acres of rolling grassland bleached tan during most of the year and dotted here and there by the robust, steak-worthy ruminants that have made California barbecue distinctive and famous. The acreage, still mostly working ranchland, came to UC Merced from a cattle-heiress trust, the Virginia Smith Trust, paid for mostly out of $12 million in grants from charitable foundations set up by the Silicon Valley computer mogul David Packard and his wife Lucille. The university promised to set aside 5,000 of the Virginia Smith acres as an environmental preserve, which undoubtedly benefits the environment but also ensured that UC Merced would remain forever isolated inside a vast cordon sanitaire of grass, grazing cattle, and jackrabbits, although with a view of Lake Yosemite, a Merced County-owned irrigation reservoir used for recreational boating, jet-skiing, and breaks from the blistering heat as well as for watering local farms. The nearly treeless landscape surrounding the campus is beautiful—in the parched, austere way that appeals to many Californians because it is the natural landscape of much of their state but that might be a hard sell to out-of-staters used to sylvan and verdant college settings.

Huddled atop that hill on 910 of the trust acres, UC Merced’s campus buildings, steel, concrete, and glass in construction, gray, ochre, and adobe in color, are beautiful, too, in the same stark fashion as the surrounding terrain. Their construction during the early 2000s under a master plan formulated by the San Francisco architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill embodied a number of design concepts that were fashionable 10 years ago and remain just as fashionable today: “smart growth” (massive five-story classroom buildings clustered tightly in quasi-urban fashion), carbon-neutrality (or at least aspirations in that direction), and above all, “sustainability.” Enormous solar panels top every structure, several of which have earned the “gold” and “silver” LEED certificates coveted by the environmentally sensitive. A two-million-gallon cylindrical water tank, sheathed in corrugated steel (recycled, of course) that is supposed to be a nod of architectural homage to the grain silos of rural California, dominates the campus’s $27 million energy plant. The water, electrically cooled overnight, is pumped from the bottom of the tank into campus buildings, which in turn pump their used “graywater” to the top of the tank for storage and reuse. Nearly every structure features enormous windows so as to make maximum use of natural sunlight and heat—but also, since the 110-degree summer days produce rather too much sunlight and heat for human comfort, mesh louvers that function as shade-screens and have become the architectural signature of UC Merced.

The overall effect of the campus, shy on greenery and flower gardens (part of a conscious decision to remain water-efficient) and artistically dominated by a 40-foot-high burnished-steel sculpture by Aris Demetrios titled “Beginnings” and resembling the two halves of a giant pair of tweezers, is impressive but a bit sterile. “It’s gonna need more trees,” Gregg Herken, a former UC Merced history professor who was one of the pioneer faculty until his retirement in 2010, said in a telephone interview. “When the campus first opened, the students said it looked like a prison. There were no trees. Now, they’ve got a few trees, and it’s a little more bucolic-looking.”

The six-mile drive from the campus to downtown Merced is a vivid lesson in exactly how remote from civilization the UC Merced campus feels. A road sign just outside the entrance points to “Restaurants, Shops, Cinema”—useful information because there is no indication as far as the eye can see that any of these amenities exist nearby. From there it is a two-mile, bullet-straight shot down Bellevue Road past fences, grazing cows, a farmhouse or two, and some sparse traffic that includes the straining, skeletal cyclists who pedal to every college campus these days to the nearest main drag, G Street, a rural extension of the alphabet-gridded streets of downtown Merced.

At this crossroads is a residential subdivision seemingly the size of a cattle ranch itself. Indeed, it once was a cattle ranch, but now it is the mostly vacant remains of an ambitious planned-community subdivision that died overnight when the housing bubble burst in 2007 everywhere in America but especially in the Central Valley. The huge tract is part oversized luxury homes, many of them in or well past foreclosure, part weedy vacant lots on empty cul-de-sacs hastily abandoned when their developers realized that there would be no more buyers. UC Merced students call the failed tract “the Bellevue”—and it is housing for several thousand of them. The strapped state of California no longer pays to construct dormitories at UC Merced or elsewhere, so the campus can offer rooms to only about one-third of its students. Many of the foreclosed-on residences of the Bellevue, with their granite countertops and multiple bedrooms and bathrooms, are rented by the banks that now own them to groups of UC Merced undergrads who pay as little as $300 a month for their rooms. Campus kiosks sport room-for-rent printouts advertising such amenities as “master bedroom with fireplace,” “patio with barbecue,” and “Jacuzzi.” Some professors also live in the Bellevue, the ones hired in 2005 and 2006, soon after the university opened, who considered the 3,500-square-foot homes’ $375,000 or so asking prices a bargain compared with what they could buy back where they had come from during those boom years, and then got stuck when the market value of their new houses plunged below the Central Valley water table along with the rest of real estate values in the area. “I try to put a silver lining on it,” said Thomas G. Hansford, a UC Merced political science professor who moved into the Bellevue with his family in 2006, at the peak of the boom. “It’s only a three-mile drive to work, and the neighborhood is very safe, very safe.”

Two more miles of driving south along G Street, and you finally reach supermarkets and suburban malls. Two miles after that, and you’re in the heart of Merced itself. In 2011 Forbes dubbed Merced the third “most miserable” city in America, ranking just behind the number-one loser, Stockton, 65 miles north on Highway 99 and teetering toward official bankruptcy, and Miami, Florida, another foreclosure quicksand pit. (The Central Valley almost made a clean sweep: Sacramento and Modesto, which is more or less midway between Merced and Stockton, also made Forbes’s top five.) Merced’s housing prices have dropped 64 percent since the mid-2000s, and the unemployment rate is 20 percent. Merced’s per-capita rate of violent crimes—murders, rapes, aggravated assaults, and robberies—has been almost twice the national average for a decade (although overall crime has dipped a bit since 2004). Merced is 55 percent Hispanic, and Merced police try to track the doings of some 3,000 known gang members belonging to 30 different gangs. The UC Merced student paper, the Prodigy, lamenting the shooting deaths of two students who drove into downtown Merced looking for fast food after a late-night party in August 2011, reported that violence was “looming over Merced like a storm cloud.”

A prosperous farm hub during the early 20th century, Merced looks battered. It boasts a handsome 1875 courthouse with a towering white-painted Victorian cupola—a rare structure for the Central Valley, most of whose towns tore down their vintage courthouses in a fit of 1950s modernization. The old courthouse is now a museum (the current courthouse, like those of many California cities, is a 1960s Brutalist monstrosity flanked by bail bond offices), but it fronts onto a tree-filled park that would be pretty if someone raked up the months-old autumn leaves and emptied the overflowing trashcans. A once-fine-looking Main Street is a bricolage of busy ethnic restaurants and vacant storefronts. The grandest structure, an Art Deco movie palace called the Mainzer Theater, has been empty since 2006. The residential neighborhoods adjacent to downtown abound with stucco-coated classic California bungalows with square-pillared front porches. They would be ripe objects for gentrification somewhere else. But most of Merced’s potentially gentrifying middle class long ago migrated to the city’s northern outskirts, and many of the old neighborhoods left behind bear all the indicia of rural poverty: bedraggled yards, graffiti, multiple pickup trucks cramming driveways and front lawns (a sign of high per-room population density), and hastily built fortress-fences that signal gangs and theft nearby. Merced’s claims to stature these days seem to rest on its billing itself as the “Gateway to Yosemite”—though the national park is a good 90 miles to the northeast—and the city’s recently won honor as a station stop on California’s controversial and yet-to-be-built high-speed rail line, whose anticipated $98 billion price tag suggests it may never come into being.

The nearest city of any size is Fresno, population 495,000, 54 miles south of Merced on Highway 99 and the largest urban center in the San Joaquin Valley. Fresno is in many ways Merced writ large: 40 percent Hispanic, plagued by gang violence, and with a deserted downtown pockmarked with parking lots where since-razed retail stores and office buildings once stood. (On my Monday morning visit to downtown Fresno the only visible sidewalk activity was a Service Employees International Union picket.) To get to a real city with urban glamour—and urban white-collar jobs—you have to drive two and a half hours and 130 miles across the Coast Range to San Francisco.

To see Fresno and the San Joaquin Valley environs from which so many UC Merced students hail, I’m chauffeured on an SUV tour by Victor Davis Hanson, the conservative polemicist and former classics professor at the 22,000-student California State University-Fresno (not part of the UC system and a notch down in prestige), and Hanson’s friend and former classics colleague Bruce Thornton, still teaching at Fresno State. Both men are natives of the Valley’s rural heartland: Thornton is the son of a West Fresno dairy farmer, and Hanson still lives on his family farm in Selma, 13 miles southeast of Fresno and self-advertised raisin capital of the world.

The flat, intensely cultivated Valley, stretching to a horizon that seems immeasurably distant, is beautiful in a uniquely Central Californian way: tidy rows upon rows of plum and almond trees and grapevines. It is also much degraded. Along the roadsides and among the fruit trees are overloaded plastic garbage sacks, styrofoam cups and clamshells, used baby diapers, and even tossed-out couches, stoves, and television sets. The Central Valley is one of California’s fastest-growing regions, and also one of its poorest. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan think tank, the Valley added one million new residents from 1995 to 2005. Its population now tops 6.5 million and is expected to exceed 12 million by 2040.

Most of the new residents are Hispanic, pushing the Valley’s Hispanic population well over the 40 percent mark. And many of those newcomers are illegal immigrants from Mexico and their offspring. Entire San Joaquin Valley towns, built by the white farmers who migrated here after the Civil War, are now Hispanic. Selma, for example, is 78 percent Hispanic, and nearby Parlier is 98 percent Hispanic. Outside of the Sacramento area, one of every five Valley residents lives in poverty, according to the Public Policy Institute, in contrast to 13 percent of the rest of the state. The Valley’s share of college graduates—14 percent—is half that of the rest of California. 

The demographic/socioeconomic pattern seems to go like this: Illegal immigrants stream into the Valley from even worse poverty in Mexico, bringing with them a work ethic and a patience for such seasonal, labor-intensive jobs as pruning, tying vines, and fruit-picking that Valley employers need and for which they pay their employees fairly well. Yet in as little as one generation, sometimes less, the combination of American comforts and easily available welfare benefits takes its toll. (A 1994 California ballot initiative, Proposition 187, disqualifies illegal immigrants from using taxpayer-funded social services, but not their U.S.-born children.) Many of the offspring disdain farm work—an attitude that dismays the Valley’s longtime Mexican-American population, for whom the skills of agricultural labor have traditionally been a ladder for lifting one’s family into the middle class. Because agriculture is the leading supplier of jobs in the Valley, unemployment in Fresno County hovers at around 18 percent despite farmers’ pleas for willing workers. On weekdays the sidewalks of Selma teem with able-bodied young men. “Look around, nobody’s working,” Hanson points out from the driver’s seat. “Everyone’s got an EBT card [the computerized version of food stamps]. Five people are working to support every one of those unemployed.” High rates of drug use, out-of-wedlock childbirth, single-parent-headed families, and violent and property crimes have spread through the Valley along with its burgeoning population.

That a branch of the University of California would be planted in this fraying agricultural heartland is a tribute to the power of politics to trump a range of hostile realities. Historically, UC branches have been located in picturesque and/or affluent regions along the coastline: Berkeley on San Francisco Bay, UCLA a short drive from the beach, UC Santa Cruz amid towering redwoods overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The exceptions before UC Merced were UC Riverside, whose inland Southern California location is the major reason for its second-to-bottom position on the applications totem pole, and the 31,000-student UC Davis, founded in 1909 as the agricultural arm of Berkeley, an hour northwest of the Bay area. The public institutions of higher learning that got built in the less glamorous parts of the state, far from the Pacific littoral and cursed with broiling summers, tended to be branches of the California State University system: a 23-campus network of workaday comprehensive universities such as Fresno State, which lack doctoral programs and elaborate research facilities and where admissions standards are considerably lower than they are for the University of California.

California has experienced nearly a fourfold population increase since the end of World War II: from 10 million inhabitants in 1950 to today’s 37 million. The UC system’s four youngest campuses before Merced were built to accommodate a postwar boom that was also accompanied by unprecedented prosperity: UC Riverside opened its doors in 1954, the 29,000-student UC San Diego in 1960, and UC Irvine and UC Santa Cruz in 1965. During the recession of the early 1990s and the deeper one of today, population growth and migration from other parts of the United States slowed considerably. Indeed, according to the Public Policy Institute, from 2000 to 2010 more people moved from California into other states than vice versa, reversing a trend that sluiced out-of-staters into California by the millions throughout the 20th century. Nonetheless, foreign immigration into California, nearly half of it from Mexico, continued unabated—and as Mexican immigration grew, so did the political clout of the Central Valley, where so many of the new immigrants settled.

By the late 1980s there was intense pressure from Hispanics in the state legislature to place a UC campus in the Valley. Relatively few Valley high school graduates enrolled in the UC system—or for that matter, in any other institution of higher learning—and the idea was that if a premier public university were placed there, they would flock to it. Never mind that such an institution already existed: UC Davis, just 23 miles from Sacramento. The legislature’s Hispanic contingent, led by Cruz Bustamante, a career Democratic legislator who became speaker of the assembly in 1996 and lieutenant governor from 1999 to 2007, demanded a UC campus in the Central Valley’s more populous southerly section. Bustamante maintained that such an institution would “fundamentally change the economy and political environment” there. 

The UC Board of Regents—the system’s trustees—were not keen on a Valley campus, but they reportedly feared legislative retaliation in the form of reduced state funding, and as the state population soared, so did overall UC enrollment. The more desirable campuses, all opened before there was any such thing as environmentalism, have found it difficult to expand. Every contemplated new structure these days at, say, UCLA or Berkeley must surmount a firewall of protests from neighbors and ecological activists. So in 1988, the regents approved a tenth campus, to be located in the San Joaquin Valley. Nonetheless, the downturn of the early 1990s slowed down efforts to select a site until 1995.

The site-selection process itself was a farrago of political jockeying. Bustamante reportedly wanted the new campus to be in or near his hometown, Fresno, where, unlike the hill country outside Merced, there were already water and sewer lines, plus easy freeway access. “Downtown Fresno would have been an ideal location,” says Fresno State’s Thornton. “It has all the infrastructure already in place, and it has nice-looking old buildings that could have been easily converted into classrooms and offices for a relatively low cost. If you wanted to create access to UC for kids from the Valley, Fresno would be the place to go.” But intense lobbying by Merced (where the university is now one of the largest employers), coupled with the regents’ desire to build something new and adventurous on picturesque empty land, led them to choose the more northerly and remote location.

“It’s out in the boondocks,” Thomas Holsinger, a Modesto lawyer who has closely followed UC Merced’s construction history, said in a telephone interview. “It should be at least 20 miles farther south in the San Joaquin Valley just in terms of driving. They chose Merced because it would be closer to Yosemite, but people don’t understand just how big this state is.”

If 100-degree-plus temperatures are a summer problem in the Valley, Holsinger reminded me, there is a winter weather problem that is just as acute: “tule fog,” named after the tule reed, a cattail omnipresent in the Valley’s marshes. Because the Valley is a basin between two mountain ranges, it traps cold air during the humid months of the rainy season. The effect is a lingering ground fog so dense it can reduce visibility to zero, generating occasional massive and even fatal pileups on Highway 99 and Interstate 5, a north-south freeway running to the west of Highway 99. One of the worst, involving a tule fog on Highway 99 just south of Fresno in November 2007, resulted in a pileup of 108 cars and 18 large trucks. Two people died in the crashes, and there were 39 injuries.

“I thought that starting a new research university was a bad idea from the beginning,” said Patrick Callan of the San Jose-based National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education in a telephone interview. “I don’t think there’s much evidence that California or the nation needed any more research universities. The UC system already had nine campuses, and there are three major private research universities in California: Stanford, Caltech, and USC. There was no evidence of need for another UC campus. What we suggested was that a fourth [summer] quarter be added at Berkeley and UCLA and elsewhere, which would have allowed more students to attend without building all that expensive infrastructure. UC Merced was really a pork barrel for the San Joaquin Valley. It was predicated on the idea that research universities are a tool for local economic development.”

After UC finalized the purchase from the Virginia Smith Trust in 2002, a new round of troubles began. They were environmental troubles, ironic for a venture committed to a minimal footprint, green technology, and smart growth. It turned out that the 2,000 acres where the regents originally planned to place the campus, which would have afforded a spectacular view of Yosemite National Park, contained hundreds of “vernal pools”—mud puddles that linger in California grasslands after the rainy season and spawn a variety of unique fauna. The vernal pools are a major habitat of an officially endangered species, the half-inch-long fairy shrimp, one of several rare critters—the pupfish of the California deserts and the snail darter of East Tennessee among them—that have bollixed up construction plans and forced developers to go through lengthy permitting processes involving clearance by numerous federal and state agencies.

In order to speed up the groundbreaking—which was important because there was still political opposition to funding the new campus—and to forestall possible lawsuits by the Sierra Club and other environmental groups arguing that the area was the last remaining wilderness in the San Joaquin Valley, the regents moved the core campus infrastructure a mile and a half southwest to a defunct 200-acre golf course also on Virginia Smith land. Since the golf course was already developed and contained no problematic wetlands, the site would allow the campus to slither into existence and worry about expansion later. The golf course wasn’t a bad choice: Its man-made pond called Little Lake, aswim with wild ducks and fringed by a stockade of tule reeds, is a welcome respite from the stark architecture. But it was also a risky choice. It took nearly eight years of legal wrangling, environmental handwringing, and a complicated acreage-protection tradeoff for UC Merced to win permission from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees wetlands under the federal Clean Water Act, to build the campus beyond the tight boundaries of the golf course.

Because of the fairy-shrimp fracas, UC Merced’s first classes began in the fall of 2005, a year after the planned startup date, with only three academic buildings (a fourth opened in the fall of 2011, and a fifth is under construction). The new campus, a vast construction site with cranes, bulldozers, and piles of raw dirt everywhere, had trouble attracting students. There was hardly any housing and no intercollegiate athletics (UC Merced did not field its first sports teams until 2011). Despite all the vacant land, parking was—and remains—a serious problem for the majority of students forced to live off campus. The state of California no longer pays to construct UC parking lots, just as it no longer pays to construct UC dorms. The first freshman class contained 708 students; the second, in the fall of 2006, only about 500. By 2008-2009 the campus was 1,700 students short of its projected enrollment and had hired only 202 out of its projected 285 faculty members.

Most of that has changed, to the point that UC Merced cut the size of its entering freshman class for 2012 to 400, because it is now over-target in enrollments and out of classroom space. About 13,000 high school seniors have applied for those 400 slots. Still, the number is a small fraction of the 161,000 who have applied for freshman places in the UC system as a whole for the coming fall. And UC Merced’s 80 percent acceptance rate is less than impressive when compared with those at Berkeley and UCLA: 26 percent and 25 percent respectively. UC Merced also has relatively low graduation rates: Only about 27 percent of its entering freshmen graduate within four years (compared with Berkeley’s 66 percent), and only 58 percent within six years, a little above the national average of 54 percent but well below Berkeley’s 90 percent. The large number of dropouts might have something to do with UC Merced’s success in attracting students from the Central Valley, whose K-12 system is notorious for its low test scores, dearth of AP classes, and generally poor preparation for college work. Hispanics form the single largest group on the UC Merced campus: 36 percent for the 2011-2012 academic year (Asians are the -second-largest group, at 28 percent), and 60 percent of entering freshmen are first-generation college students—that is, mostly from low-income families. 

Still, “you’ve got some really motivated students, students who value an education, and that makes up for the fact that they’re not as well prepared as other students I’ve had,” says retired history professor Herken, who also taught at Oberlin, Yale, and Caltech. “One student I had wrote his senior thesis on an Indian revolt at the San Diego mission that he was interested in. He was the first in his family to attend college, but he did graduate-level research. I found that really impressive.”

Because of clashing ideas from the very beginning about what sort of institution UC Merced was supposed to be, the campus is now a jarring combination of state-of-the-art scientific research labs and an almost entirely undergraduate-focused teaching facility. In order to build a major research university quickly, the regents decided to focus UC Merced on science and engineering, where outside grant money is plentiful (the humanities and social sciences are regarded on most campuses as drains on overhead). In that respect, UC Merced has been highly successful, attracting $113 million in federal, state, and private grants and yielding dozens of patents, although much of the funded research might strike an observer as green-trendy: solar energy, carbon capture, a climate change project that measures snow runoff in the Sierra Nevada. UC Merced seems to want to spin off a Silicon Valley of renewable-energy enterprises. But the campus is noticeably shy on the doctoral programs that are the mainstay of research universities elsewhere, with only 260 graduate students enrolled during the 2011-2012 academic year (a political science graduate program scheduled to open this fall will boost the number slightly). That’s partly because state funding for UC campuses is based on the number of full-time undergraduates, and graduate students, who typically receive full-tuition scholarships and stipends, don’t count under the funding scheme. A hoped-for UC Merced medical school, which was supposed to be in operation by the fall of 2012, so far consists of five grant-subsidized students who take all of their classes at UC Davis.

Nonetheless, there are distinct advantages to enrolling at UC Merced, even if most California high school seniors don’t see them. For one, the science and engineering focus means that the male-female ratio among undergraduates is just about even—in contrast to the 57/43 female-to-male ratio that prevails elsewhere at U.S. universities. It also means that courses bearing titles such as “Critical Popular Music Studies,” “Empire: the Postcolonial, and Representation: Reading East and West,” and “Topics in the Literature of Difference” are few and far between. UC Merced’s undergraduates seem to take their studies seriously, just as Herken said. Most college libraries are as empty as Al Capone’s vault except at final-exam time, but early in the semester, students and their bulging backpacks and clicking laptops cram nearly every available table inside UC Merced’s Kolligian Library. Furthermore, at the usually crowded Lantern, a café on the first floor of the library building that serves as the closest thing UC Merced has to a student union, it is rare to see fewer than two ethnic groups represented among the coteries of students eating lunch with the compostable utensils that are obligatory in the dining facilities. This is natural diversity, not the kind enforced by admissions quotas. “Since 2006, when I got here, there have been no serious ethnic conflicts at UC Merced,” says Simon Weffer, a sociology professor. “At other UC campuses, there have been nooses and ‘Compton cookouts’ [a reference to a UC San Diego fraternity’s spoof of Black History Month in 2010], but there hasn’t been anything like that here.” (African Americans make up about 7 percent of UC Merced’s undergraduate population and whites 20 percent.)

UC Merced’s campus culture is in many ways stereo-typically academic-liberal. Students and professors protested the arrival of a Walmart distribution center in southeast Merced in 2008, secured first lady Michelle Obama as commencement speaker in 2009, and pushed through a controversial “Chicano/a studies minor” in 2010, whose curriculum includes “an in-depth examination of activism and its role in raising consciousness” and “political mobilization (both contentious and non-contentious behavior).” A writing instructor, Christopher Ramirez, gave his students credits for picketing Merced’s closure of some homeless camps on city land in 2010, and the administration has given a free pass to the Occupy tent-dwellers in front of the library. “I was living downtown, but I moved up here,” one of the Occupiers, sociology major Aaron De La Cerda, a Fresno native who describes himself as “homeless,” told me. “I shower in the gym—I’m the first one in the shower every morning—and people give us donations of food. I love it here. It’s really progressive.”

Still, the Central Valley is known for its political conservatism, and even among Hispanic students only a minority belong to the campus chapter of MEChA, the radical Chicano-separatist student organization. This year’s president of the College Republicans is Baltazar Cornejo, the son of a fieldworker in Modesto. “Yes, most of [UC Merced’s Hispanic students] are liberals, but I read [Barry Goldwater’s] Conscience of a Conservative, and I took a few classes here where the professors were preaching socialism,” Cornejo, a political science major, said in an interview. “I don’t believe that people can prosper off it. People do a lot better when they can keep their own money. My parents emigrated from Mexico, so I’m the first generation here. I was raised to be fiscally responsible, and that you shouldn’t take money from other people.”

UC Merced’s small size and the perception that it is inferior in quality to the other UC campuses have led -others in the UC system to grumble that it is a luxury that the system can no longer afford. From 2008 through 2011 the state of California cut its contribution to the UC budget from $3.2 billion to $2.3 billion even as the number of students steadily rose. Alarmed at the inevitable across-the-board spending cuts that would follow, 23 department chairmen at UC San Diego signed a letter to the regents in July 2009 arguing that it was unrealistic for California to support 10 flagship research universities when other states, such as Texas, Wisconsin, and Michigan, have at most one or two. The letter asked the regents to “acknowledge” that UC Merced, UC Riverside, and UC Santa Cruz were “in substantial measure teaching institutions” and to adjust their budgets downward or even to “shut one or more of these campuses down, in whole or in part.” The letter continued: “Corporations faced with similar problems eliminate or sell off their least profitable, least promising divisions.” Some UC professors were already angry that political pressures had led the regents and the legislature to approve an expensive new law school at UC Irvine in 2006 even though California’s postsecondary education commission had recommended against the new school on the grounds that the state already had four public law schools and a growing glut of underemployed lawyers.

UC president Mark Yudof hastened to assure UC Merced that its future was not in jeopardy. At a regents’ meeting this past January, however, Susan Desmond-Hellmann, the chancellor of UC San Francisco, a prestigious and grant-rich medical school and research facility that enrolls no undergraduates and receives little state funding, complained publicly about UCSF’s $49 million mandatory assessment to help support other campuses in the system. Desmond-Hellmann called the assessment a “tax” and argued that UCSF ought to loosen its ties with the rest of UC and become autonomous. She also seemed irritated at having to attend regents’ meetings that are marked by raucous student protests over the tuition hikes that have accompanied the funding cuts, since UCSF, with a nearly $4 billion annual budget, takes in so much outside money that it scarcely needs to charge tuition at all. Berkeley and UCLA have also hinted at breaking away from UC to some extent. Both campuses would like to set their own tuition rates—a change from the current system in which all UC students pay the same tuition no matter which campus they attend. Berkeley, UCLA, and UC San Diego, all of which enjoy international reputations, already boost their revenues by enrolling large numbers of out-of-state and foreign students who pay significantly higher tuition, and greater independence would allow the three campuses to do even more of the same. Struggling UC Merced, by contrast, enrolls almost no students from outside California.

On the encouraging side, UC Merced has a new chancellor, Dorothy Leland, hired by Yudof last year, who seems well aware that in order to survive, UC Merced needs to grow its prestige and find outside funding. The 63-year-old Leland, who grew up in the rural town of Fillmore in Southern California, had spent seven years as president of Georgia College, the Milledgeville-based liberal arts campus of the Georgia public system. There, she managed to turn a so-so institution of 6,700 students whose main asset was its pretty campus into a magnet for applicants from all over Georgia and out of state. She also raised enough money in private gifts to more than compensate for a 20 percent cut in state funding for the institution, mostly by cultivating local businesses and industries. Strategically placed outside the door of Leland’s office is a vintage photograph of Berkeley taken soon after its establishment in 1868. The campus consisted of a single academic building and a handful of students, behind which loomed the then-unpopulated Berkeley hills that look to the viewer as barren and unpromising as those behind UC Merced do today. The photo is obviously a message to visitors that UC Merced can pull it off, too.

“We’re a huge state, with significant population growth,” Leland said in an interview in her office. “I know we can do it, but we have to be resourceful and inventive. We have to call on our friends and supporters and remind them of the significance of this university to the entire San Joaquin Valley. We have to refuse to be deterred. This is an ugly recession, but we need to jump those economic hurdles. I still think that we’ve got a lot of support within the University of California. I’m not into crystal ball-reading, but this isn’t just wishful, hopeful thinking, either. Look at what we’ve done so far, from where we were just a few short years ago. I have nine fellow chancellors, and they have all been wonderfully supportive. That’s because they all have something at stake in this, to make sure this campus has the quality to survive.”

UC Merced may turn out to be the Little Campus That Could. Or it may be an unfortunate object lesson in the triumph of regional and ideological politics over realistic planning. “I feel badly for Merced,” said Andrew Scull, the former chairman of UC San Diego’s sociology department who wrote the text of the 2009 letter to the regents. “I thought it was put in the wrong place. It’s been hard to attract faculty, and they essentially put commercial development in an area full of endangered species. It never really got vetted, and now it’s a tax on the system. Its future looks very, very dark.” What if Scull is right? Several thousand UC Merced students and faculty members—and I—hope he’s wrong, but that’s just hope, and I don’t have a crystal ball, either.

Charlotte Allen is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s Minding the Campus website.

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