UC Merced’s founders hail the newest campus
Seeing past barns and barbed wire to a vibrant learning community

By Steven Finacom



Robert Laughlin addressed the crowd of celebrants attending Oct. 25’s founding ceremony for UC Merced,the university’s newest campus.The Berkeley grad (and 1998 Nobelist in physics) stood before the campus’ newly inaugurated chancellor, Carol Tomlinson-Keasey (seated, center), another Berkeley alum, who spoke of her hopes that the new campus will breathe fresh life into the Central Valley economy.
Steven Finacom photo

30 October 2002 | Hundreds of University of California representatives, government dignitaries, and local community members gathered in a field just outside Merced on Friday, Oct. 25, to observe a “founding ceremony” for the first UC campus to be built since the 1960s.

UC Merced is also the first American research university established in the 21st century, and the first UC campus headed at its outset by a woman, Chancellor Carol Tomlinson-Keasey, whose official inaugural ceremony was combined with the founding event.

A colorfully robed procession of dignitaries from academia, government, and community began the ceremony. Marchers included representatives of both the oldest university in the United States (Harvard, established in 1636) and the youngest (California State University, Channel Islands, established just last year.

The campus site lies near the rolling foothills of the Sierra Nevada, a few miles outside the city of Merced. Dirt roads, barbed-wire fences, a weathered gray barn, and a few tiny office trailers punctuate the almost treeless landscape. Though the expansive site is as yet undeveloped, it is planned to eventually accommodate a campus of 25,000 students. Orchards, feedlots, and scattered farmsteads and country homes lie nearby.

Elation and invigoration
“Congratulations Merced — this is your day. You’ve done it!” proclaimed a relaxed Governor Gray Davis, who headed a parade of speakers. “The Central Valley has gone for too long without a UC campus. All of that changes today.”

Davis, who lavished praise on the 134-year-old UC system, emphasized the economic benefits that UC campuses bring to their surrounding regions and the nation, noting that half of the biotech research in the country is estimated to take place within 40 miles of a UC campus. He highlighted CITRIS, the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society — one of four UC science initiatives fostered by the governor — in which Berkeley, Davis, Santa Cruz and Merced campuses are collaborating.

In her inaugural address, a clearly elated Tomlinson-Keasey recalled UC research initiatives, from 19th-century viticulture to 20th-century soil science, that have aided the San Joaquin Valley. She and several other speakers expressed strong hopes that the presence of UC Merced would invigorate not only the regional economy but help raise the historically low UC enrollment rates of children from California’s agricultural heartland.

While outlining the planned components of the future campus (including a division of engineering, a school of management, and research institutes focused on the Sierra Nevada and world cultures), Tomlinson-Keasey detailed some $30 million already pledged in private support for scholarships, buildings, and research and teaching programs. These gifts include 14 endowed faculty chairs, primarily funded by local donors, many of whom were present at the ceremony
The new chancellor said there is much to do before the campus opening, planned for 2004, noting wryly that the Regents, at a pre-inaugural event the night before, had ceremonially presented her with a pair of running shoes.

Civic leaders, Cal alums
Abundant local pride was evident. Merced-area civic leaders and citizens packed the event, and the Merced Community College Orchestra and Chamber Singers gave spirited performances. In a touching “Parade of Cultures” conclusion, local children dressed in the traditional clothing of San Joaquin Valley immigrants, from Hmong to Portuguese, filed across the stage and presented attending dignitaries with small shovels for the ceremonial groundbreaking.

Several Berkeley alumni spoke at the event, including Tomlinson-Keasey herself (who received her Ph.D. here); former California state legislator John Garamendi, representing the UC Merced Founda-tion; the U.S. Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education Susan Neuman (who earned a teaching credential at Berkeley); and the academic keynote speaker of the day, Robert Laughlin, a Nobel Prize winner (physics, 1998) who grew up in Visalia, south of Merced.

Chair of the Board of Regents John Moores recalled in his introductory remarks that Laughlin once described Berkeley, UC’s oldest campus, as “the place ideas mattered, where everybody was eccentric, where originality was not only accepted but had actual market value.”

In his own remarks, sprinkled with reminiscences and poetry, Laughlin told the crowd that “the UC system did what it should; it changed my life.”

He concluded, “I cannot impress on you enough how astonishingly great the University of California system is. It is the equal of education systems in entire countries” and “the envy of other states in the Union.”


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Copyright 2002, The Regents of the University of California.
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