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The Chancellor's Annual Address to the UC Merced Foundation

November 1, 2019
Delivered by Interim Chancellor Nathan Brostrom on October 30, 2019

Ladies and gentlemen, members of the board of trustees and members of our community, friends of the University of California Merced, students, faculty and staff —

I would like to begin on a personal note as I mark three months as your interim Chancellor.

It has been a distinct and humbling honor to be welcomed into this amazing Merced community.

As I think through my feelings, I am reminded of a passage by the great American poet Walt Whitman, who was born 200 years ago this year.

“I have perceived that to be with those I like is enough,” he wrote.

“To stop at rest with the company at evening is enough,

“To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing flesh is enough.”

And so it has been for me these past few months – whether with students and faculty in classrooms and lecture halls, or in the weight room or at the Pavilion Dining Hall, or in Yosemite National Park and at events in the City of Merced with community leaders, trustees and alumni.

At every step, I have been surrounded by the beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing people of this great UC Merced community – and that, for me, has been enough.

So I begin with a note of profound gratitude to each and every one of you.

But that is not the reason for this address. The real purpose is that I have been asked by the trustees of the UC Merced Foundation to tell you about the state of our university.

And I am proud and honored to report: the state of UC Merced is excellent.

This university has been on an upward trajectory for 14 years, and many of you have been participants in this historic rise.

Together, you have built the fastest growing research university in the country.

Together, you have built an educational magnet for young people from the length and breadth of California, nationally recognized for teaching, for social mobility, for beating very long odds on graduation rates.

Together, you have built a fiercely loyal alumni base who are among the most generous in the United States in supporting their alma mater.

Together, we have created the Merced 2020 Project which, when completed less than a year from now, will double our physical capacity and serve as a national model for innovative financing of campus growth.

Together, we have replaced the promise of ‘we will be’ with the reality of ‘we are.’

We are UC Merced, and this is our time.

This alone is a compelling statement about the state of this campus. Alas, it would make for a very short address.

And it would not begin to capture the true state of UC Merced.

To give you the full story, I remind you of our history and how we almost didn’t make it to this position without the grit and determination of my predecessors, particularly Chancellor Emerita Dorothy Leland.

I must tell you about the students, faculty and staff who I have had the privilege to work with as interim Chancellor.

I must tell you about UC Merced’s unique place in the California story – how it is helping to shape the future of our state’s fabled history through its diverse student body, cutting-edge research and far-reaching public service.

And I must tell you about UC Merced’s role in American higher education. At a time when colleges and universities are losing public support, UC Merced – the first new public research university of the 21st century – is emerging as a shining example of how higher education can achieve better results and serve a changing population of students.

I tell this story from my own unique perspective – as someone who also watched most of the UC Merced story from afar, first as a vice chancellor at UC Berkeley, then as chief financial officer at the UC Office of the President.

From my offices at Berkeley, an institution established 150 years ago, an institution steeped in rich tradition, I could not help but envy Merced’s youth and the very lack of tradition that allowed the campus to try new things in new ways.

Later, at the Office of the President, I was allowed a big picture glimpse into the strengths and weaknesses of each of the campuses. Merced’s strength was its nimbleness; it could adapt in ways older and larger institutions could not or would not.

In the early years, Merced’s challenges were daunting – maybe, to some, even insurmountable. Since its founding, it faced political and financial hurdles no other UC campus has ever faced: a strapped state budget, a lack of state funding for capital, too much student demand for too little teaching and research space, and a revenue model almost completely dependent on tuition and state support.

Yes, there was a time when some even said UC Merced would never succeed — that it would forever be the little campus in the Valley that never quite could.

Today UC Merced is experiencing a turnaround that spins heads.

It is hard not to be a true believer in Merced. And maybe in our enthusiasm for all it has become and represents, we come off as a little fanatical.

Just ask my youngest daughter, Anna.

She and I were recently on a drive, listening for the umpteenth time to the “Hamilton” soundtrack. For those of you who are familiar with the music, there is a critical moment when Hamilton starts chanting, “I’m just like my country. I’m young, scrappy and hungry.”

“Just like Merced,” I told Anna. “We are young, scrappy and hungry.”

Anna, I should add, is 14 years old. She just looked at me, rolled her eyes and said, “Dad, you are such a dork.”

Dork or not, UC Merced is young. It is scrappy. And it is hungry.

Indeed, it would not be what it is today without the scrappy determination of its students, many of whom work harder than most, against greater obstacles, just to get to college, much less stay here.

They are students like Janna Rodriguez Glaze, of the Class of 2012, a Merced native who might not have gone to a research university if one had not been built right in her back yard. She parlayed undergraduate research and internship opportunities at Merced into a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from Stanford, and now a career at Intel.

More remarkable than Janna’s academic and career achievements is how she is giving back to her community by working to help more people from diverse backgrounds get involved in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. And she and her business partner recently endowed a scholarship under the name of their thriving downtown Merced business, J&R Tacos.

Or like Vicky Espinoza, of Los Angeles, who is working toward a Ph.D. in environmental systems, and has seen firsthand the centrality of water policy on California’s all-important agriculture industry. She was recently invited to present to an international audience of scholars at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs about her research into managing water for a nutritious food future.

Or like second-year undergraduate Kumaran Akilan from Cupertino, who has been watching his grandfather’s cognitive impairment increase — and invented a smart-phone app to help with early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s by scanning retinas. He’s a sophomore. By the time he’s a junior he’ll likely have a patent on his resume.

Our success is also due to the drive of our growing numbers of distinguished faculty who came to UC Merced to make a difference through teaching and research — and are doing just that, despite the added burden of helping a new campus build new departments and support shared governance.

Faculty like Jessica Trounstine, our UC Merced Foundation Presidential Chair whose landmark work on segregation was recognized last summer with two American Political Science Association section book awards

Faculty like Kamangar Family Chair in Biological Sciences, Clarissa Nobile, whose cutting-edge research is directed toward understanding the molecular and mechanistic basis of microbial communities.

And like Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, who recently shared her research on soil and its impact on solving climate change not just in scholarly journals, but in a TED Talk that spoke to an international audience.

Professor Berhe’s research is an example of how UC Merced’s focus on Central Valley issues is having global impact – and that, too, is part of our story.

Our campus came of age amidst emerging societal challenges – climate change, widening disparities of health and income, and the California drought, to name just a few. Each of these has become a UC Merced research opportunity, and our faculty are spurring advancements in fields as diverse as the environmental sciences, including water and air quality; big-data analysis and computer science; mechanical, environmental and materials engineering; political science; and much, much more.

In this way, our story is California’s story.

The Morrill Act, which was signed by President Lincoln at the height of the Civil War, created “land grant” institutions like the University of California. This Act, of such great foresight, had three critical goals that were new in a higher education landscape of ivory tower, aristocratic finishing schools: first, to educate citizens from all walks of life, not just the elite; second, to advance research into cutting-edge local economic needs of the day; and finally, to stay closely tied to the regions they serve.

California benefited mightily from the land-grant mission. The UC educated generations of Californians, from wealthy to working class, and its research jump-started local economies, advancing agriculture, viticulture, engineering and biotechnology, helping transform California into the world’s fifth-largest economy.

Nearly 160 years later, the American economy has become more closely integrated with the international marketplace, and the role of higher education has changed, as even land-grant universities expand enrollment to more out-of-state and international students and broaden their research portfolios.

But at our core, UC Merced still adheres to the fundamental principles of the original land-grant mission.

First, we, more than any other UC, are educating California’s emerging citizenry, many more of whom are underrepresented, undocumented and first-generation, and still brilliant, forward-thinking and eager to absorb and, yes, create new knowledge.

Second, we are advancing research into the cutting-edge fields of today and tomorrow – agriculture and engineering, of course, but also climate change and its impacts on water, still the lifeblood of California, and such pressing issues as poverty and immigration.

And third, we remain closely tied to the region that fought to have us here – in the heart of California, in the Central Valley, the region that will be the California of tomorrow.

The last part of the story is how we are accomplishing all this, and how that makes UC Merced such an antidote to the cynicism about higher education.

Our success is not just that we are admitting such a unique student body; it’s that we are building on their energy and intellect to position them for success.

It is not just that we are growing; it’s how we are growing, through the innovative public-private partnership that is Merced 2020.

It is not just that we are leaner and more efficient than many other research universities; it’s that we are achieving new levels of excellence by exploring entirely new higher education business models.

UC Merced is no longer just a promise. It is a glorious reality, poised for the next stage of our upward journey.

This journey, however, requires progress in three key areas

• student success

• completing Merced 2020 on-time and on-budget

• and financial stability.

These represent my priorities as interim chancellor.

First, student success. It starts with ensuring the students of the Central Valley and California have access to UC undergraduate and graduate education that is second to none.

But success is a lot more than simply access. The reason that US News ranked UC Merced as No. 1 in the country for outperforming expected graduation rates is we have adopted proven best practices for ensuring that students do not simply graduate, but that their success continues through their lifetimes – to the benefit of their families, their communities and their world.

Our strategies include a two-year on-campus residency requirement, so that students who most need support are immersed in it, surrounded 24/7 by an academic support structure and by peers who face the same challenges as they face.

They include our Summer Bridge program, which immerses low-income, first-generation undergraduates in campus life before their freshman year, and on the graduate side, trains the next generation of faculty researchers how to be successful in that life of the mind.

They include living-learning communities, in which students share an academic and social life with peers who have the same affinities and support one another’s progress.

And they include centralized academic advising that is focused on the individual student rather than a field of study — because we know that nationally, 30 percent of undergraduates change their major at least once, and 10 percent at least three times, and their advisors should walk alongside them every step of the way, not stop at the door to an academic department.

All this is enhanced by our size and intimacy — a place where students know even the interim chancellor by his first name, as I work out with them in the recreation center or dine with them at the new Pavilion.

Combine that with our growing academic distinction, and UC Merced is emerging as the UC campus that is small, rigorous, and distinctive, where students can have one-on-one contact with the faculty, rich undergraduate research experiences, and a close community of other students from similar backgrounds and ethnicities.

Students are responding in growing application numbers, making us the fastest growing university in the United States. But as the New York Times recently observed, there is something of a paradox: the future of the state depends on whether the University of California can grow to be more like Merced, and the future of Merced depends on whether it can grow to be more like other campuses.

Critical to that common-sense growth is providing adequate classroom, laboratory and student life facilities. Therefore, my second priority is completing the Merced 2020 Project.

I have been fortunate to have been part of this project from the beginning, since Chancellor Emerita Leland came to the realization that the campus would never achieve its research aspirations without growth — growth that was being starved by lack of state capital dollars.

Together we came up with an innovative solution – a public-private partnership that is the first of its kind of the nation. We’ve gone from concept to bricks, mortar and high technology – so far on-time, on-budget and without litigation.

And note that the benefits of Merced 2020 are shared beyond our campus. By next fall, this project will have created 10,000 construction jobs in the Central Valley over a four-year period, and the economic impact to the Valley is estimated at $1.9 billion — and $2.4 billion statewide.

Not to mention the permanent campus jobs, from faculty to facilities, that their opening will create, and the economic impact of these salaries in Merced and the region.

Now we are shifting our attention from the buildings themselves to the teaching and research being conducted inside those buildings.

And these two necessitate my third priority: ensuring UC Merced’s financial stability.

Merced’s balance sheet carries significant debt, a remnant of its early startup days, and a revenue model too dependent on two unpredictable funding sources: tuition dollars and state support. With this formula, UC Merced will continue to struggle to expand our great work in enhancing social mobility, student-centered programs, and faculty research.

Throughout my career with the University of California, I have learned how to work with the UC system and with the legislature, as well as how to achieve greater efficiencies and create smarter business models.

But our challenge also requires broadening revenues – and that means attracting significant philanthropic support, foundation and corporate partnerships, and support from our young but increasingly successful — and joyfully dedicated — alumni base.

I believe that if donors and new partners know us and hear more about the unique work we are doing, they will support us. So as interim Chancellor I am travelling throughout the state, knocking on the doors of potential donors and new partners and telling them the story I just told you today.

It is the story of an institution deep in California’s Central Valley that has emerged, in a few short years, as a nationally ranked public research university.

It is the story of a unique and talented student body that, as we sit here today, already reflects what California will look like in less than a generation.

It is the story of faculty who are helping to change the world by designing new ways to create and store energy, to grow food and distribute water in a world shaped by a changing climate; and who are already thought leaders in social justice and social science.

It is the story of California – its past, its present, but most importantly, its future.

And it is the story of everything that is right today about higher education.

Right here, right now – it’s all happening at UC Merced, in the heart of California.

Together, we are UC Merced. And together, we continue to rise.

And that, my friends and colleagues — my fellow Californians — is the state of the university.

Thank you.