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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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.

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