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National CrossTalk Fall 1999
News Editorial Other Voices Interview

3 of 6 Stories

By William Trombley and Carl Irving
MERCED, CALIFORNIA

Try not to mention the word "shrimp" when talking to University of California officials about their proposed new campus near this small agricultural city at the northern end of the San Joaquin Valley.


The 2000-acre campus site selected by the UC Board of Regents is filled with "vernal pools"-small pockets of water that form after the winter rains in most years and that contain, for a few weeks, a wide variety of aquatic plants and organisms.


Three of these creatures are forms of tiny fairy shrimp, the largest only about an inch long, that have been listed as endangered species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That means the university must go through a lengthy permitting process, involving Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency and at least two state agencies, before any building can begin.


Consequently, it now seems likely that a new site must be chosen and that the campus will not open by the fall 2004 date that California Governor Gray Davis has promised. "I think that's clear," UC Merced Chancellor Carol Tomlinson-Keasey said in an interview. "The likelihood is that the permitting will take longer than 2002, which is what we had hoped for" in order to complete the first buildings by 2004.


"Something will open in 2004 but it won't be a 'campus' in the usual sense," said another UC official.


In all probability, the "something" will be a leased building at recently closed Castle Air Force Base, six miles north of Merced, which will house offices for administrators and the first group of faculty members. An uncertain number of students-perhaps several hundred-will be in "distributed learning centers" in Fresno, Bakersfield, Modesto and possibly in rented space in downtown Merced.


That will enable Governor Davis and local politicians to proclaim the "opening" of the UC Merced campus, and to cut a few ribbons, but it will be several years before an actual campus takes shape.


These are the latest developments in the turbulent history of what would be the tenth campus in the University of California system and the nation's first new major research university of the 21st century.


UC has long wanted a campus in the San Joaquin Valley, a fast-growing and increasingly influential part of the state, where there are several California State University campuses but only a limited UC presence.


Officials argue that a new campus is needed if the university is to meet anticipated enrollment demands, since most of the other UC campuses are full. An increase in California high school graduates is expected to bring an additional 63,000 students to the nine UC general campuses by 2010. Plans call for UC Merced to accommodate about 6,000 of that increase.


Local politicians and business leaders also hope the new campus will boost the local economy and help to eliminate persistent double-digit unemployment.


In 1990, the Board of Regents approved the tenth campus and began the search for a 2,000-acre valley location-1,000 acres for the campus and another 1,000 for "future development of revenue-generating activities."


Shortly thereafter, state budget cuts forced the university to retrench and the site selection process slowed to a crawl. By the mid-'90s, however, California's economic fortunes had brightened considerably, the UC budget had improved and tenth campus plans were moved from the back burner. After a heated competition, the Merced site was chosen over two that were closer to Fresno, which is by far the largest city in the valley. Political support for the project grew in volume.


"The governor is committed to UC Merced," said John Mockler, who until recently was Davis' interim education secretary. "There's a massive multiethnic need there."


Davis has shown this commitment by pouring millions into plans for the campus and for conservation efforts intended to mitigate the environmental problems. His 2001-2002 budget contains $162 million for UC Merced, most of it for construction of the first three permanent buildings, even though the location of the campus is still in doubt.


 
The present campus site, which is likely to be changed, is about six miles northeast of Merced, at the northern end of California’s San Joaquin Valley.  
Last year's state budget included almost $50 million to mitigate wetlands damage and to ease the path for UC construction.


By 2010, when UC Merced enrollment is expected to reach 6,000, at least $1 billion will have been spent on the campus-$400 million for construction, $300 million for infrastructure, and another $400 million for operations, according to estimates by the California Postsecondary Education Commission.


Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamente, who grew up in the valley, said the new campus would "fundamentally change the economy and cultural and political environment in the Central Valley." (The "Central Valley" extends 500 miles from Redding in the north to Bakersfield in the south and includes both the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys.) A campus chancellor was chosen-Tomlinson-Keasey, who had worked on the project as a member of UC President Richard C. Atkinson's Oakland staff. The chancellor and a staff now numbering about 70 set up headquarters in a one-story Merced office building complex that also houses insurance agents and chiropractors. The UC Merced Foundation, with a board of trustees numbering 102, was formed. Local benefactors already have endowed seven faculty chairs.


Meanwhile, in those shallow vernal pools, referred to as "mud puddles" by some, tiny crustaceans that have existed for more than 200 million years-survivors of the Ice Age-were paddling upside down, wiggling their 11 pairs of swimming legs and feeding on algae, bacteria and other delicacies, blissfully unaware of the turmoil they were about to cause.


 
  Most of the 10,000-acre planning area where the UC Merced campus might someday be located is now empty.
While environmental problems have pushed academic planning into the background for the time being, interviews with UC Merced administrators indicate that their goal is to become a traditional research university, like other UC general campuses. At first, most of the students will be undergraduates but the main focus will be on graduate study and research. "If you were just going to build an undergraduate program, you'd build another Cal State, you wouldn't build a UC," said former UC Berkeley Provost Roderic B. Park, who came out of retirement to help recruit deans and other top academic administrators for the new campus. "You've got to do the undergraduate part well, but it has to be within the context of a research university."


A few years ago, a group of faculty members from several UC campuses, hoping for a more innovative approach, drew up a quite different plan for the new campus, suggesting closer integration of graduate and undergraduate instruction. They proposed student learning centers, emphasizing individual initiative, group discussions and group learning, with small classes and seminars, according to Charles Muscatine, a retired professor of English and a veteran of largely unsuccessful efforts to improve undergraduate education at UC Berkeley.


"This was not an attempt to abandon research but to integrate research and teaching at the undergraduate level," said another member of the group, Alexander Astin, professor and director of a higher education research institute at UCLA.


These ideas went nowhere. To many, they sounded like the original plan for UC Santa Cruz, which opened in 1965 with a determination to make undergraduate education at least as important as graduate study but since has evolved into a research-oriented institution. "I can't tell you how many people have said, 'Don't give us another Santa Cruz!" said Karen Merritt, director of academic planning at UC Merced.


Chancellor Tomlinson-Keasey agreed. "That ideology was prevalent in the early days at (UC) Riverside and Santa Cruz," she said, but "the fact of the matter is, if you want to take your place alongside similar research universities, you have to stress graduate work and research."


The chancellor said the campus "will tilt in the direction" of computer science, environmental science and engineering at first, because of society's "pressing need for technical skills." Although "there are five jobs available for every person (UC) can turn out" in these fields, she said, the programs are overenrolled on UC campuses and "hundreds of qualified students are being turned away."


By stressing science and engineering, the campus also hopes to attract financial support from the federal government and from private enterprise. "We can't expect the state to pay for all of it, so we need to develop other revenue streams immediately," Tomlinson-Keasey said.


However, the chancellor said other academic areas will not be neglected. She hopes to build strong social science departments and expects that one of the university's first professional schools will deal with public policy.


After reviewing the latest academic proposals, however, Berkeley's Professor Muscatine said "plans for the faculty and curriculum in the division of social sciences, humanities and the arts seem both slim and somewhat incoherent. It looks like it will be a run of the mill 'research' campus, but oriented even more than usual toward vocational education, business, industry and big-money opportunities for both the university and faculty."


There are plans for a Sierra Nevada Research Institute, where scholars would study "issues of global significance-water, geology, ecology, air quality...but certainly with a definable local component," the chancellor said.


The hope is that the institute will provide a research base for new faculty members as the campus is being built and academic departments are forming. But progress has been slow. "It's not going quite as rapidly as we had hoped," said Fred N. Spiess, professor emeritus of oceanography at UC San Diego and chair of the university-wide faculty task force that has been overseeing academic developments at UC Merced.


One reason for the delay is that Tomlinson-Keasey and the task force could not agree on a director for the institute, and the chancellor has decided to postpone the appointment until other top academic jobs have been filed.


Some have wondered if first-rate faculty and administrators can be recruited for a new campus in a little-known, largely rural area of California, far from the golden coastline. But both Tomlinson-Keasey and Rod Park say this has not been a problem.


 
Clifford W. Graves, vice chancellor for physical planning at UC Merced, must find an environmentally suitable location for the new campus.  
The proximity of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and Yosemite National Park, 90 miles east of the proposed campus, has been helpful. "East of the Rockies, nobody knows where Merced is, but all of them know where Yosemite is," the chancellor said.


Park said he has been deluged with applications from candidates with "impressive backgrounds" for the top academic positions. During his search, Park said, he always got around to asking candidates if they had a "frontier spirit, (because) when I first saw the site, I thought of 'Dances with Wolves,' without the buffalo. There's no question many are exhilarated by the prospect."


In addition to the main campus, wherever that turns out to be, UC Merced plans to operate the "distributed learning centers" in Modesto, 30 miles north of Merced; in Fresno, 60 miles south; and in Bakersfield, another 100 miles farther south at the southern edge of the Central Valley.


Campus officials hope these centers will attract qualified lower-division (freshman and sophomore) students, especially Latinos and other minorities, who have shunned UC in the past, for financial and cultural reasons.


"This is probably the boldest part of our experiment," said Director of Academic Programs Joe Castro, who will run the regional centers. "We are looking for UC-eligible students in the valley who would love to go to a UC campus but cannot because of costs or because their families don't want them to go that far away."


In 1999, only 3 percent of Merced County high school graduates enrolled at a UC campus-one of the lowest percentages of any county in the state, according to the California Postsecondary Education Commission. In surrounding counties, the percentages were not much higher.


"The median family income here is around $30,000," Tomlinson-Keasey said. "You can't take that and subtract $13,000 (average cost of a year at a UC campus, including tuition, fees, books, room and board) and expect a family to send a student to UC."


The chancellor said an aggressive financial aid approach is planned, so that no academically eligible student will turn down UC for lack of money.


"This is also a cultural issue," said Castro, who is Mexican American. "We don't want our kids to go too far away." Castro cited his own case as an example.


After graduating from high school in the San Joaquin Valley community of Hanford, Castro had planned to enroll at nearby College of the Sequoias, a two-year community college. But then he was offered a chance to attend UC Berkeley as part of a special program for graduates of rural high schools.


"My grandmother didn't want me to go," he recalled. "She said, 'are you too good for the community college?' But I went. It was maybe one of two or three times in my life when I did something my grandmother didn't want me to."


There are tentative plans to enroll about 250 students at the three learning centers in fall 2004, although the number could be much larger if, as seems likely, there is no main campus by then. Many other questions remain. Will students take all of their lower-division work, or only some of it, at the centers? Will students who do well at the centers be guaranteed transfer slots on the main campus? Who will teach at the centers-regular UC Merced faculty members or part-time adjunct professors?


Professor Spiess said he doubted that fulltime UC Merced faculty would want to teach at the centers.


 
  Joe Castro, director of academic programs, will supervise “distributed learning centers” in Bakersfield, Fresno and Modesto.
"These people are going to come to build a campus, not a bunch of places scattered around the countryside," he said. "If you tell prospective faculty they're going to have to go down to Fresno or Bakersfield to do some teaching, I don't think that would be attractive to the kind of people we are seeking."


Rod Park agreed but said, "That's not what we're asking them to do." He believes much of the instruction at the centers will be handled by part-time faculty members, probably from Cal State or community college campuses, supplemented by online classes and videoconferencing.


As Park sees it, every student enrolled at the centers would take a weekly seminar of about two hours at the main campus, with a UC Merced professor, and Merced faculty members would make occasional visits to the centers. "That would not be a big load on the faculty," he said.


Campus officials realize that not only must they attract more UC-eligible students through the learning centers and other means, but they also must increase the pool of eligible high school graduates.


California Postsecondary Education Commission figures show that, during the 1997-98 school year, only 27.4 percent of high school graduates in Merced County completed the courses required to enter UC. This compares with 38.2 percent in Alameda County (Oakland and surrounding area), 40.1 percent in Los Angeles and 56.5 percent in San Francisco.


Joe Castro and his staff, calling on faculty members from several UC campuses, are working with valley school districts to improve science and mathematics instruction and to increase the number of Advanced Placement classes offered in high schools.


But all of these efforts to plan a campus and a curriculum will be in vain if the thorny environmental problems cannot be solved.


These began in May 1995, when the UC Board of Regents selected the campus site, six miles from downtown Merced, on land that was donated by two local educational trusts. The agreement called for development of a community of at least 30,000, to be built on 8,000 acres adjacent to the campus.


Revenues from development of the community would flow to the trusts, eventually providing some $300 million in scholarships to UC and other higher education institutions for the region's high school graduates. Privately, UC officials now downplay these prospects.


 
One of three endangered species of fairy shrimp that are found in vernal pools on the proposed UC Merced campus site. Their presence is likely to delay the planned 2004 opening.  
Except for cattle grazing on the land between November and April, the proposed campus and the land around it are almost empty. Last fall, a visitor found a vast, silent brown landscape, where a red-tailed hawk taking flight provided the sole sign of life. There are no roads, sewers, water lines or other infrastructure, and county officials estimate that it would cost at least $350 million to provide them.


But this part of Merced County is wetlands country. When the winter rains end, the area is dotted with thousands of vernal pools, in which live the three endangered species of fairy shrimp. Five other species in and around the pools also have been listed as either "endangered" or "threatened," and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials say there might well be more.


Chris Nogano, Sacramento branch chief for U.S. Fish and Wildlife, explained the importance of vernal pools in a Fresno Bee interview last fall: "These pools are used by migrating birds on the Pacific Flyway, and many other species use the pools. You find insects and native plants at vernal pools. In general, if you have degraded habitat for fairy shrimp, the quality of nature degrades for many species of animals and plants." The plight of fairy shrimp does not touch the hearts of many in the region. "All of us here today feel that children and education are more important than animals, fish, fowl and creepy things," State Senator Dick Monteith, a Modesto Republican, said at a pro-campus rally last summer.


These potential problems with wetlands and vernal pools were mentioned in an environmental impact report done for the Board of Regents during the site selection process but there is no indication in minutes of board meetings that the Regents discussed the subject before choosing the location.


 
  UC Merced Chancellor Carol Tomlinson-Keasey.
"We were well aware that we had vernal pool and endangered species issues," said Roger Samuelsen, who was in charge of planning the new campus for several years, "but I don't think the extent of the problem was well understood. I don't think we realized that this would be in the middle of this vast area of vernal pools."


After the location was picked, UC officials commissioned additional environmental studies and began to realize the dimensions of the problems they faced. "The more we learn about the site, the more we can only say, 'wow, we didn't know,'" Samuelsen said.


"Unfortunately, they wound up on one of the really unique locations, not just in this state but probably in the United States and perhaps even in the world," said Elizabeth Borowiec, a project coordinator in the San Francisco regional office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.


"They put the campus in exactly the wrong place," said Brent Mishler, a professor of integrative biology and director of the Jepson Herbarium at UC Berkeley. "Nobody looked at the overall picture...The choice was made by the Regents and administrators, without consulting the faculty, even though we have the best biology faculty in the world." But he added, "The fault is partly ours-many of us didn't see the importance of this in time."


When UC opened three new campuses in the 1960s-Irvine, San Diego and Santa Cruz-environmental restrictions were a minor concern. Before a shovel of dirt can be turned on the Merced campus, however, UC needs approval from half a dozen federal and state agencies. Two especially important permits-one from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, required by the 1972 Clean Water Act, and one from U.S. Fish and Wildlife, required by the 1973 Endangered Species Act-generally take years to obtain. "It's not a pretty picture," said Clifford W. Graves, UC Merced's vice chancellor for physical planning. "It will take a lot longer than we would like...It's not just a question of what you can create; it's a question of what you can get permitted."


Under the present schedule, the campus would not even apply for a Clean Water Act permit until 2003, said Tom Coe, spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers. First, Merced planners must complete a survey of 14 alternate sites that might be less environmentally damaging than the one the UC Regents have chosen.


UC officials were encouraged by a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that limited the scope of the federal Clean Water Act and allowed some suburban Chicago communities to build a landfill on top of ponds used by migrating birds. It is not clear if this ruling will apply to vernal pools but if it does, UC Merced might not need a Corps of Engineers permit. However, UC attorney David Moser told the Modesto Bee that the decision is "not likely to speed up the process significantly."


Also, the Endangered Species Act still would apply, so a permit from the Fish and Wildlife Service still would be needed. That process usually takes four to five years, said Vicki Campbell, chief of the Conservation Planning Division, Endangered Species Program, in the agency's Sacramento office.


"The whole process is complex," she said. "Resource issues are never simple. We have to try to meet the needs of the species and we have to try to meet the needs of the county and the state" to build the campus.


"We would much prefer that they shift the site," Campbell added.


Local environmentalists are keeping a close watch on the UC Merced planning process. "We're not taking on UC, we're taking on the process," said Lydia Miller, president of the San Joaquin Raptor Rescue Center, which finds homes for wounded barn owls, red-tailed hawks, shrikes and other raptors. "We're trying to make sure they do this project right, and, if they don't do it right, we're laying the groundwork for a lawsuit."


This is not popular with some of Miller's Merced neighbors. "Some people will say things like, 'You're depriving your son (a high school student) of the chance for a college education,'" Miller said. "But you'd be surprised how many say things like, 'My god, we don't want this in Merced!'"


Miller and Steve Burke, president of Modesto-based "Protect our Water," have won important environmental lawsuits in the past, and UC planners do not take them lightly. "They have a tremendous track record," Roger Samuelsen said.


Both the university and Merced County, which is jointly planning the project with UC, expect to be sued. "So we've got to make sure we've got a defensible project," said county planner Bob Smith.


Many UC biologists oppose the present campus site. Some have protested publicly against the plan to build a campus for 25,000 students, and several thousand faculty and staff members, in such an environmentally sensitive area. Others are trying to work within the system, hoping to persuade the Board of Regents and the UC administration to move the site.


But there is strong political pressure to start building soon, on the theory that once permanent buildings are under construction, the project cannot be stopped.


Some of the pressure comes from Governor Davis, who has appointed a "red team," made up of state agency heads and UC officials, to speed the campus along. Democratic Congressman Gary Condit, a close Davis political ally, also is pushing hard, as are Dennis Cardoza, the area's Democratic state assemblyman, and Dick Monteith, its Republican state senator.


Nine months ago, Condit, Cardoza and Monteith met with representatives of the Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife and other agencies and "let them know we think this (project) can be done," said Deede D'Adamo, Condit's legal counsel. "We've gotten the message through at the highest level that this is the highest priority."


On a trip through the Central Valley, former Vice President Al Gore said he would appoint a task force to help UC Merced move through the federal bureaucracies, but nothing much happened. The attitude of the new Bush Administration is not known.


Over the Christmas holidays, campus officials and local politicians thought they had found a way out of their environmental dilemma. They floated the idea of placing the first three permanent campus buildings on a 200-acre public golf course that is part of the trust lands. This location is one and a half miles from the original site but has few, if any, vernal pools.


"Because the golf course already has been developed, it would be easy to avoid any wetlands," campus spokesman James Grant told the Sacramento Bee. "So we are looking quite seriously at this alternative."


Environmentalists immediately cried foul.


"This is piecemealing the project, and that's against both federal and state law," said Lydia Miller. "They know that once they get a couple of buildings out there, it will be almost impossible to stop the whole project. They're just thumbing their noses at the federal agencies...This is shady and corrupt in the worst way."


 
Former UC Berkeley Provost Roderick Park, who is recruiting academic administrators for UC Merced, repairs his homemade airplane, damaged in a crash at Park’s Sonoma County vineyard.  
Officials of both the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have expressed reservations about the golf course alternative.


"It depends what kind of buildings they want to put out there," said Vicki Campbell of Fish and Wildlife. "If it's something like a remote field station, that would probably be okay, but if these are basic campus buildings, like a library or an administration building, that would be piecemealing" and that would be illegal. (The three buildings UC has in mind are a library, an engineering/science building and a classroom/office building, not a "remote field station.")


Most of the parties in this complicated dispute agree that eventually a deal will be struck, and a UC campus will be built somewhere in the Merced area.


"I think we will see a campus in eastern Merced County," Campbell said. "I wouldn't hazard a guess on where or when."

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