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From Rangeland to Research University: The Birth of University of California-Merced (review)
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Reviewed by
Karen Merritt and Jane Fiori Lawrence (Eds). From Rangeland to Research University: The Birth of University of California-Merced. New Directions for Higher Education, No. 139. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007, 152 pp. Paper: $29.00. ISBN: 13-978-04702-33030.

Building and sustaining research universities in recent decades has been a vexing challenge. California’s population grew by over 10 million people from 23,667,902 in 1980 to 33,871,648 in 2000, yet since 1965, not one new University of California campus was opened during that period. The first since then was UC-Merced, which enrolled 1,285 students in the fall of 2005.

More high school graduates chasing a relatively flat number of seats at higher education’s table, long-term state disinvestment, and ever-higher tuition that outpaces federal and state investments in student financial aid are sadly the norm. Pressures to access graduate programs motivated California officials to allow California State University campuses to offer doctoral degrees for the first time in 2007. This change represents a sharp break with the role differentiation in graduate education envisioned for the University of California and the CSU systems in the 1960 California Master Plan for Higher Education, as Bill J. Priest, a surviving member of the advisory committee, told me several years ago.

This, then, is the milieu in which the University of California, Merced, was birthed. It raises basic questions. What is a research a university, and how is one built? The editors of From Rangeland to Research University: The Birth of University of California-Merced, Karen Merritt and Jane Fiori Lawrence, both played key roles in the initial development of UC-Merced, with Merritt serving as the founding Director of Academic Planning, and Lawrence as the founding Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs. In this book, Merritt and Lawrence pull together key strands from the initial stages of planning, development, and opening of a brand-new university, which allows an examination of how new programs and institutions are started from scratch. The phenomenon of starting new institutions and dramatically expanding existing institutions was commonplace during the “baby boom” era of the 1960s; but while the overall national higher education enrollment data are well understood, the literature of higher education history is not rich in “bottom up” institutional histories that outline specific developments within teachers colleges that became universities, community colleges, and new research universities

The first chapters identify challenges associated with starting a new campus in the giant UC system, followed by 10 chapters describing the development of new academic programs, student and academic support services, and the new students themselves. It concludes with a useful section on “Lessons Learned.”

The planning process for UC-Merced occurred over nearly two decades in a tough political environment. Four California governors (George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson, Gray Davis, and Arnold Schwartzenegger), and four University of California presidents (David P. Gardner, 1983–1992; JackW. Peltason, 1992–1995; Richard C.Atkinson, 1995–2003; and Robert C. Dynes, 2003–2008) were involved. The period begins with the passage of Proposition 13, that limited property taxes for K-14 education and resulted in a massive shift for education funding to the state budget. It ends with the 2001–2003 recession.

Historian Frederick Rudolph documented how local boosters bound the economic futures of their towns and regions to the aspirations of newly founded colleges (1961). The UC-Merced saga fits in this tradition. Founding Chancellor Carroll Tomlinson-Keasey’s aptly titled chapter, “A Delicate Dance,” describes how support from key local legislators, notably Cruz Bustamante, Speaker of the California House of Representatives, was essential in creating the line-item in the state budget that funded planning for UC-Merced separate from the rest of the UC system budget. [End Page 144] Bustamante, a San Joaquin Valley native, saw UC-Merced as a key to the region’s long-term economic development and worked diligently to sustain legislative momentum during recession and budget shortfalls. In July 1997, the UC Regents approved Atkinson’s proposal to plan a $400 million campus at Merced, and by March 2002, a complex land deal was approved by UC regents.

Construction soon followed. A...