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UC Merced Turns 10

A strong faculty, motivated student body, and interdisciplinary spirit lead the school as it continues to grow

by Jyllian Kemsley
August 12, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 32

Credit: Jyllian Kemsley
UC Merced’s second science and engineering building is under construction behind the first, adjacent to the main quad.
Photo of UC Merced’s second science and engineering building under construction, which is behind the first and adjacent to the main quad.
Credit: Jyllian Kemsley
UC Merced’s second science and engineering building is under construction behind the first, adjacent to the main quad.

Ten years ago, the first faculty arrived at the newest campus in the University of California system, in the city of Merced. When it was authorized by the UC governing body in 1988 as the 10th campus in the system, hopes were high for the first U.S. research university to be built in the 21st century. In addition to addressing long-term college enrollment needs for the state, the school planned to eschew traditional department silos and majors in favor of an interdisciplinary organization.

Two recessions in the early and late 2000s tempered UC Merced’s plans. As UC cut budgets to address funding shortfalls, the campus was forced to slow its growth—but it still expanded. Last year, 306 faculty members taught 329 graduate and 5,431 undergraduate students. The school is now aiming for 530 faculty, 1,000 graduate students, and 9,000 undergraduates by 2020. UC Merced’s strengths, faculty and administrators say, are its faculty, student body, and continued interdisciplinary ethos, even as traditional discipline structures emerge. Its main challenges—at least in the natural sciences—are graduate recruiting and facilities.

“I have been really amazed and very pleasantly surprised at the quality of people we’ve been able to attract to come here on the faculty,” says chemist Samuel J. Traina, who arrived in Merced in 2002 as the director of the Sierra Nevada Research Institute and is now vice chancellor for research. The recessions actually helped: Although hiring at UC Merced slowed, it was still appointing new faculty when other schools weren’t. Professors are also attracted by the promise of building something new combined with the status of being part of UC.

That draw was true for Anne M. and David F. Kelley, two chemists who moved to Merced as tenured professors in 2003 from Kansas State University. “Kansas treated us very well,” David Kelley says, but the two found the environment there “stable” and “static.” They jumped at the opportunity to move together to a UC campus where there was clearly going to be a drive for excellence.

And the lures of the school continue to be similar for newer professors. For Christine Isborn, who just finished her first year as a chemistry professor, choosing UC Merced was about “coming to a place that isn’t weighed down by old ideas and having a strong role in shaping the program.”

Faculty also point to the student body as something special. Nearly 60% of undergraduates are first-generation college students. “The students we have here are incredibly hungry for a research-centered education,” says Thomas W. Peterson, a chemical engineer who became UC Merced’s provost and executive vice chancellor in December 2012.

Chemistry professor Erik J. Menke went to graduate school at UC Irvine, did postdoctoral research at UC Los Angeles, and started at UC Merced in 2008. “I think the students here aren’t as prepared as they were at Irvine or L.A., but they work much harder and they take this as a real opportunity,” he says.


One challenge to being a faculty member at Merced is the service load, which everyone acknowledges is a higher burden than elsewhere. “We have the same number of committees as everywhere else, but fewer people to do the work,” David Kelley says.

That can be frustrating and occasionally overwhelming for junior faculty in particular, but they also see the benefits of it. In line with the desire to be part of building the institution, they want to be involved in tasks such as faculty or graduate student recruiting. More broadly, “I feel like I have a better perspective on higher education,” says Tao Ye, a chemistry professor who arrived in 2007.

As for the school’s interdisciplinary ethos, it is evolving. UC Merced has three schools: natural sciences; engineering; and social sciences, humanities, and arts. When the university opened, there were no departments. Faculty instead organized into units that defined six undergraduate majors and several interdisciplinary graduate groups. The overarching philosophy was to avoid being tied to traditional academic structures and instead to rethink curricula for the 21st century and promote interdisciplinary studies.

In the university’s first year, the two undergraduate majors in natural sciences were biology, which was and is in high demand across the UC system, and “earth systems science.” That year, “we had a disastrous time attracting students and did not come close to meeting our enrollment targets,” says Anne Kelley. “Nobody wanted to come to a brand-new school that didn’t even have a campus yet. Plus, we were out in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of cows and had no beach and no clubs.” And on top of that, students had little choice of what to study. The school consequently added several new majors in its second year, including chemistry.

Credit: Shutterstock/C&EN
UC Merced is the newest campus in the University of California system.a Faculty arrived in 2003; officially opened in 2005. b Established in 1864 as Toland Medical College; affiliated with UC in 1873. c Established in 1891 as Anna S. C. Blake School for Girls; affiliated with UC in 1944.
Map of California shows locations of all UC campuses.
Credit: Shutterstock/C&EN
UC Merced is the newest campus in the University of California system.a Faculty arrived in 2003; officially opened in 2005. b Established in 1864 as Toland Medical College; affiliated with UC in 1873. c Established in 1891 as Anna S. C. Blake School for Girls; affiliated with UC in 1944.

The chemistry major did take on an unusual format originally, mixing up the order of general and organic chemistry in the first two years, largely driven by what the biologists wanted as grounding for their program. The chemistry major has since migrated to a more traditional, American Chemical Society-approved curriculum because the alternative structure “just didn’t work,” Anne Kelley says. It also created problems for transfer students.

Graduate students initially all grouped into what was called the Interim Individual Graduate Program, with emphasis in areas such as “molecular science and engineering” and “quantitative and systems biology.” As time has moved on, more traditional areas have emerged. Earlier this year, the UC system approved a chemistry and chemical biology graduate program for UC Merced.

The more traditional structures that seem to be forming have a few origins, people at Merced say. One is the desires and needs of students, including undergraduate transfers. Another is the necessity to group people into organizational units as the school gets larger. A third is the personnel process. “It was the absurdity of having ecology faculty voting on tenure cases in math,” Anne Kelley says.

At the same time, however, “one of the strong distinguishing features of this campus is the interdisciplinary aspect of its programs,” Peterson says. “To lose that would be to lose one of the fundamental characteristics of this institution. It would also mean that we’ve lost a competitive branding advantage and recruiting advantage.” He notes that even though chemistry in particular is an area in which there’s been a strong impetus to establish a traditional discipline, it is also a field that cuts across many interdisciplinary areas, including environment, energy, and health. Going forward, he hopes the school will be able to strike a balance that preserves UC Merced’s founding spirit of interdisciplinary scholarship even as more traditional department structures form.

That will be one challenge for the university. Others lie in its expansion over the next few years, in which it aims to triple its graduate student population and increase its undergraduate and faculty numbers by 60 to 70%.

Recruiting that many graduate students will be a challenge. Although the school netted 10 chemistry graduate students in 2012–13, only one will start in the coming year. Some of the variation is simply the statistics of small numbers, but overall, UC Merced has both pool and yield problems. Its newness and size mean that a lot of prospective graduate students and their advisers don’t know it exists. That’s a problem that will be solved over time, as faculty attend conferences and give seminars at other schools, graduates become professors elsewhere, and the university works to establish pipelines to specific undergraduate programs, Peterson says.

On the yield part of the equation, chemistry professor Matthew Meyer thinks that the school needs to better portray its small size as a plus. “If you’re here, you mean something,” he says. “You’re not expendable like in a big school or group.” Meyer started at UC Merced in 2005 and was the first chemist to go through the tenure process.

The university’s growth plans will also require rebalancing the ratio of tenured and tenure-track faculty to lecturers. To get started and build a base of undergraduate courses while being able to provide adequate start-up packages for tenure-track faculty, the school hired a relatively high proportion of lecturers. “If we want to grow the graduate student population, then we have to grow the professorial ranks to serve as advisers,” Traina says. That, again, will take time.

And then there’s the facilities problem. Although UC Merced opened a science and engineering building in 2006, some faculty remain in “temporary” space 10 miles away from the current campus, on the former Castle Air Force Base. The school’s nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers are housed there, along with the research groups that use them, in a former vehicle maintenance garage. When a second science building opens next year, it will fill up immediately, and some groups may yet remain at Castle.

Similar pressures exist in other areas, such as housing and general instructional space. Whether the campus can build quickly enough to manage its growth is an open question. Chancellor Dorothy Leland’s plan involves a higher density, smaller footprint for the campus to reduce the cost of expanding infrastructure. She also plans to consolidate administrative personnel off campus.

UC Merced is clearly past the uncertainty of its early days, when its founding faculty feared UC would just cancel the entire plan. It has unique growth-related challenges, along with those facing higher education more generally, such as declining state financing and the advent of massive open online courses. Still, the enthusiasm that drew personnel to the school should serve it well in the long run. “You know, in the course of being a professor, you have to do all kinds of things that nobody taught you how to do,” Anne Kelley says. “That’s what this job is all about. You just figure it out.”


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