Just a two-hour drive from the state Capitol grows what may well be the future of California. The University of California, Merced, which opened just 10 years ago, is delivering on its promise to meet the demand for a UC-quality education among a rising generation of California students. In our classrooms, in our residence halls and in our labs, you can see the face of California’s next 20 years.
Given our enviable diversity, the UC Merced of 2015 is in many ways the California of 2035. In just a decade, we have grown from an inaugural class of 875 students to more than 6,200, with 97 percent of undergraduates coming from California. Our rapid growth has contributed more than $1 billion to the economy of a vibrant, promising region that still has the highest rates of poverty and unemployment in the state.
But today, while the rest of the UC system grapples with the prospect of enrollment caps due to budget constraints, UC Merced is facing an enrollment cap of a different kind: We physically do not have space to grow. The campus is struggling to add the new facilities we need to keep up with the biggest surge in fall applications of any of the 10 UC campuses – to the point that we must turn away qualified students.
Our role is to open the door to opportunity, not close it. So the campus must develop a new strategy for expansion at a time when the state no longer provides sufficient funding for construction as it did for other public campuses. After careful consideration of the alternatives, we have adopted a strategy modeled on other successful public building projects in the United States and the world. This strategy – which goes before the UC regents for discussion on Wednesday – will allow the campus to resume its rapid growth, advance the regional economy and implement a sustainable, long-term financial model.
While other UC campuses have paved the way in forging partnerships with the private sector in designing and building facilities, the UC Merced 2020 Project expands the concept by designating a private development team to design, build, finance, operate and maintain an integrated, master-planned community, rather than as a collection of individual buildings.
This model allows the university to maintain ownership of the land and buildings and retain responsibilities and control over key areas of the core educational mission to ensure a “UC experience” in student enrollment, financial aid and services; faculty hiring and development; and teaching, research and administration.
Our strategy promises to provide sufficient facilities by the end of the decade to accommodate as many as 10,000 students. Just as importantly, it will do so faster and less expensively than traditional university expansion projects.
There are three important reasons we need to move forward with the 2020 Project now.
First, it will enable us to continue to deliver on our promise to educate more students from the Central Valley and California. The bright, highly motivated young men and women who attend UC Merced – many of whom are the first in their families to attend a four-year university – are vitally important to the future of the Valley and our state. Thousands of our graduates become health care workers, open businesses, join major corporations, enter law enforcement and start careers in agriculture, technology or other fields vital to California’s future.
Second, it offers significant economic development benefits to the San Joaquin Valley and to the state – an estimated 12,600 jobs during construction, plus hundreds of permanent new staff positions, more than doubling the number of union jobs. UC Merced is committed to working with campus and system-wide unions to develop mutually beneficial labor agreements.
And third, a student body of 10,000 will allow UC Merced to achieve a sustainable financial foundation. Building a research university requires a significant upfront investment.
We believe our strategy is a highly efficient approach that makes the most prudent use of public dollars and takes advantage of private sector efficiencies. It seems only fitting that the first American research university of the 21st century should be the first in the country to introduce this innovative model for growth. It is a win-win strategy for students, faculty and staff as well as for the region that is both a wise investment and one I believe Californians will appreciate.
Dorothy Leland is chancellor of the University of California, Merced.
For more columns from national writers, go to sacbee.com/op-ed
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