Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to visit the first American research university of the 21st Century; the University of California – Merced.
This visit was poignant for me. I have felt personally connected to this newest University of California campus since I was an undergraduate at UC Irvine in the late 1990’s and the Merced building site was announced. UC Merced represents an opportunity for the University of California, unarguably best public university system in the world, to build a campus from scratch. So, Merced’s development is as free, creative, and innovative as the founders wish while backed by the prestige, reputation, and experience of the UC system. What and opportunity! And the founders are using it well. Even though my alma mater was a 5-hour, 313-mile southbound drive away, Merced felt like a UC campus. Although I had never been there before, UC Merced had a hallmark of familiarity for me, like visiting a childhood home in one’s adult years.
Starting new academic programs from scratch is a prospect dear to me as a founding faculty member of the mechanical and energy engineering department at the University of North Texas (UNT). The difference, of course, is that UNT has existed since 1890; so, we are merely adding a new college of engineering and several new engineering departments to an established campus. Those pioneers out in Merced have the much grander challenge of building their whole university (and the surrounding community) from scratch.
UC Merced is also special to me because of the traditions and history I carry with me as a UCI alumnus. Before Merced, Irvine was among the youngest UC campuses, opening its doors to students in 1965. Pictures from that time period show that California’s Orange County, where Irvine is located, was not the sprawling suburban metropolis we know today. Instead, it was a rural landscape covered with orange groves. Early pictures of the UCI under construction show an isolated campus; Merced’s construction photos look identical, but only in color. I am not ashamed to say that is was an emotional experience to drive from Merced’s city center out to the fledgling UC. Forty years from now, that country lane will be a main metropolitan thoroughfare thanks to the university being born at the end of the road. I’m sure the founding Irvine faculty enjoyed a similar drive from Santa Ana to UCI along a rural lane that eventually became State Highway 55.
UC Merced, is strategically important in California because it is a doctorate-granting research university located in the Central Valley, uniquely located at California’s nexus of agriculture, environmental stewardship, and renewable energy generation (solar, wind, and agricultural fuels all are potentially viable there). In addition, it is positioned to provide higher education access to the historically underserved population of the Central Valley, which had no local UC campus until Merced came on-line.
UC Merced is worth keeping an eye on. It will surely follow its other UC cousins to become a top-tier public research university within the next 40 years.