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Last Hurdle Cleared, UC Merced on Track for Debut

The Central Valley campus wins $20 million in the latest state budget to meet its goal of fall '05 opening.

August 14, 2004|Peter Y. Hong | Times Staff Writer

MERCED, Calif. — On a former golf course in this farming town between San Francisco and Yosemite National Park, construction crews are busily laying foundations and raising walls for a library, dormitories and classrooms that will form the next campus in the University of California system.

Meanwhile, 27 professors are already at work planning the curriculum and recruiting more faculty for the day the first classes begin next year. They are also trying to attract future students by spreading the word at the region's high schools.

UC Merced is moving full steam ahead after nearly two decades of riding the highs and lows of California's finances. Thanks to strong lobbying from its Central Valley backers, the next UC campus has cleared the latest budget battle with the $20 million it sought to meet its goal of opening in the fall of 2005 with a first freshman class of 1,000.

Carol Tomlinson-Keasey, UC Merced's chancellor, said that support showed UC "desperately needs a 10th campus" and added that "as the campus grows, we promise a good return on their investment."

Even before Merced was chosen as the specific site, every governor since George Deukmejian had backed plans for a UC campus in the San Joaquin Valley. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his first State of the State address, singled out UC Merced as the one project he would use to "expand the dream of college."

Critics, however, questioned whether the money could be better spent elsewhere in the university system at a time of tight budgets. Last year, for instance, state Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco) called UC Merced the "biggest boondoggle ever."

UC Merced's weathering of fiscal crises shows just how "the dream of college" means not only the desire by students to earn a degree close to home. It is also the dream of politicians and communities for the construction projects, heightened land values and prestige that come with a UC campus.

Educators in the San Joaquin Valley say area high school students will be more likely to pursue a university education with a UC campus in their midst. The valley's students, who have close access to Cal State campuses at Fresno, Bakersfield and Stanislaus, already attend Cal State colleges at roughly the same rate as the rest of the state. But only 3.45% of the valley's high school graduates went on to UC schools in 2002, compared with 7.47% statewide.

"Proximity is very important," said Tomlinson-Keasey, who was named chancellor in 1999, earning $253,000 a year to develop the campus.

Local parents "ask, 'Why should we have to send our kids hundreds of miles away for their education? We've been paying taxes all these years, yet we have to travel' " for a UC education, she said.

For much of the last year, Tomlinson-Keasey has spent part of each week in Sacramento making such arguments to legislators. In addition, a full-time lobbyist is one of the handful of administrators already on staff.

Republican political consultant Kevin Spillane says a UC campus is a matter of pride in a region that "has always had an inferiority complex" compared to more populous Northern and Southern California. For either a Democratic or Republican governor, backing UC Merced "is an easy way to demonstrate concern" for the area, Spillane said.

But Patrick M. Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education in San Jose, said building UC Merced was, "at the end of the day, purely political. It's pork-barrel higher education."

"It's the most expensive way to build capacity," he said. Rather than construct an entirely new campus, he added, existing public universities could take more students, even if they had to move to year-round schedules.

"The question is: Can we afford it?" Callan said of the new campus. "Are our resources likely to be better spent protecting the world-class institutions we already have?"

Mere word of the campus' anticipated opening has already generated student interest. About 600 high school juniors have sent their SAT scores to the school. Encarnacion Ruiz, UC Merced's admissions dean, said 38% of those students were from Southern California.

More than 1,000 jobs have come to town, including 965 for construction workers -- the fruits of $360 million the state has spent so far.

A city of 68,000, Merced has been growing rapidly even without the campus. Retirees and commuters to the Bay Area are moving in. Several cafes and the town's first microbrewery have opened recently.

"A lot of people are banking on it," Jason Friesen, owner of the year-old J Bonz Boards skateboard shop, said of the campus. "It comes up all the time at the Chamber of Commerce events, at the downtown business owners' breakfasts."

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