Central Valley Goes to College

University of California opens a new campus, with ambitions for its students, its interdisciplinary approach and a region.
September 9, 2005

The doors swung open this week for classes at the University of California at Merced.

Granted, the doors were to the library, because the classroom building is not finished, but students, faculty members and administrators where excited to be on the University of California system’s first new campus in 40 years.

There were a few glitches. Some of the curtains didn’t work perfectly, so a few classrooms filled with sunlight and got toasty. The audio system in a large classroom wouldn’t turn on, but, like William Shadish, a psychology professor who taught at the University of Memphis for 22 years, the 55 full-time faculty members, 18 lecturers and 1,000 students were "just thrilled to be here, in class."

Amid tight funding for higher education in California, Merced becomes the 10th University of California campus. University officials hope it will make college a centerpiece of a generally agricultural region that has seen swift growth in population, but has stagnated in terms of educational opportunities and jobs, with 14 percent unemployment last year.

About a third of the students who started at Merced this week are from the Central Valley, where the campus is located. University officials hope that fraction will top one-half as about 800 students are added each year until 2035, when the university expects to have 25,000 students, and to have watched the population of Central Valley nearly double to around 12 million. Thirty to 40 faculty members will come on board each year as about four new academic programs begin. This year, Merced will have nine majors in the humanities, engineering, natural sciences and social sciences. Some, like human biology, which includes the study of the social applications of biology, are not offered at other University of California campuses.

Before this year, students in the Merced area who wanted to be in the University of California system had the Davis and Berkeley campuses, about 120 miles away, as their closest options. “This campus is important to the state in the master plan that says the top one-eighth of high school students should have a UC campus available for them,” said David Ashley, provost of Merced. “That said, we are committed to making higher education visible here and increasing the enrollment of Central Valley students.”

Officials were already happy with some initial numbers. Based on letters of intent from May, just under 50 percent of this year’s class are expected to be first-generation college students, and about one-third are expected to be minority students.

One of the advantages of being new, Ashley said, is that the university can start with a focus on interdisciplinary coursework, rather than having to break down age-old departmental barriers that exist at established institutions. “Major universities have worked very hard to create multidisciplinary opportunities,” Ashley said. “We have the chance to do that from scratch.”

This week, the first students took the required “Core Course,” which has professors from many departments teaching sessions on topics in their discipline, from the Big Bang, to a brief history of social experimentation. “You may major in engineering,” said Sheryl Wyan, a university spokeswoman, “but you will get an intro to arts, economics, psychology.”

Ashley thinks the newly created Sierra Nevada Research Institute will be a centerpiece of the multidisciplinary theme. The institute will be a research base for experts from hydrologists to policy makers and social scientists to work in the Central Valley and Sierra Nevada Mountain Range ecosystems. “Water is a very important issue here,” Ashley said. “We have the ability, through this institute, to bring together a broad range of people.”

Of course, being green can have its share of problems too, and UC-Merced could have some growing pains as it develops in a tight budget environment. University officials said expanding the research space will probably be the biggest concern as the student population increases. “Right now there’s no laboratory space for the social scientists,” Shadish said. “Good social scientists need labs to do research,” he added. “That could be a serious problem. But once the economy gets better, hopefully that will get better.”

This week, Shadish was just happy to be teaching again. In the morning, he had 15 students, the maximum allowed for his freshman seminar. “There was construction going on, but otherwise it was just like normal,” Shadish said. “All of us who took a job here wanted to be associated with the opening of this campus. I tried to convey my excitement to the students, and I think they thought I was a little nuts.”

Charlotte Beard, a freshman studying psychology, was in Shadish’s class, and found his enthusiasm “really cool,” she said. Beard, who is from the Bay Area and was waiting in line to found a music club, said she came to Merced to “be part of the pioneering class.” She added that the brand new dorms, and the semester system -- Berkeley is the only other UC campus that has semesters -- were major draws. “The housing is great,” she added. “And the food."

Shadish agreed. “I think my favorite thing today was going to the student cafeteria for pizza,” he said. “It’s a blast.”


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