From Rangeland to Research University: The Birth of University of California Merced by Karen Merritt and Jane Fiori Lawrence (2007)


Introduction: Why a New Research University at Merced?

Karen Merritt

In February 1989, the University of California (UC) Regents authorized President David P. Gardner to plan up to three new campuses; the first of the three would be located in the San Joaquin Valley, a rapidly growing area of the state with the largest population fifty miles or more from a UC cam- pus. The campus was scheduled to open in 1998. Instead, UC Merced, the tenth UC campus, opened for instruction in September 2005, with 706 freshmen, 132 transfer students, and 37 graduate students, 13 of whom had begun study at UC Merced the year before. Building the first American research university of the twenty-first century has proven to be especially challenging and complex in both anticipated and unexpected ways. The entire story, from search and selection of a campus site in the San Joaquin Valley through layers of advance planning, largely in the absence of those who would ultimately lead the campus, to physical and academic redirections as new obstacles were encountered, to the actual building and staffing of the campus would be a long one indeed. The discrepancy between the original and actual tenth campus opening dates is suggestive of the roadblocks, readjustments, surprises, and controversies faced by UC Merced. As founding chancellor Carol Tomlinson-Keasey observes in Chapter One, “I took the job as chancellor thinking that I would hire an administrative team; lure talented scholars to the faculty; build classrooms, office space, and laboratories; and admit students. I found instead that I was embroiled in multiple other issues, all with political overtones.” Building a new research university from the ground up was an ambitious goal. Not only was a rationale for building a new research university called for, planners needed to institute new ways to ensure that education at all levels would be the more robust through infusing the research mission into every part of the enterprise. The project called on the founders’ ingenuity and flexibility in navigating complicated political, fiscal, and physical development waters. Insofar as this is a story about innovation, midcourse correction under pressure, and management of a highly complex endeavor in an equally complex regulatory setting, the lessons learned by the UC Merced founders offer unique insights into American higher education in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

Jane Fiori Lawrence
Publication date: 
September 20, 2007
Publication type: