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'One of the next great research universities' | UC Merced's expansion foreshadows big ambitions

UC Merced touts themselves as one of the fastest growing universities in the country after polishing off a four-year effort that doubled the size of their campus.

MERCED, Calif. — A little more than a half hour’s trip south of Modesto, the University of California’s newest campus in Merced is making big strides with even bigger ambitions in mind.

The campus that pulls students from Turlock, Modesto, and all around California recently completed its “2020 Project,” which doubled the size of the campus in only four years. It’s growth that UC Merced considers to be among the fastest in the country among universities.

“UC Merced is a university on the move,” Juan Sanchez Muñoz, university chancellor, said. “It’s a university of increasing stature both in California and nationally. It has some of the most distinguished faculty in their fields anywhere in the country.”

The 2020 Project turned a $1.3 billion investment into 13 new buildings and increased the university's student capacity to 10,000. Among the highlights are a level three biological safety lab, which deals with indigenous or exotic microbes that can cause serious and potentially lethal disease. The lab will give the university access to competitive research grants.

The project also brought plenty to the student body, including a 300-student lecture hall, 1,700 new beds for residential students, soccer fields, a pool, and a food court pavilion.

“You want students to do well in the classroom as well as have things to do outside of the classroom,” Muñoz said.

It’s a whole new world of amenities for students that’s been a long time coming, but celebrations have been largely put on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic. Despite the added capacity, Muñoz said only about 500 students will be staying in the residential halls, one student per dorm regardless of its size.

Current expectations have the young university at around 9,200 enrolled students by September. Their next big milestone is 10,000 students, but Muñoz is already making it clear he wants 15,000 students by 2030.

To do that, he's looking at aggressive recruitment in the Los Angeles Area, Inland Empire, San Diego, Ontario, San Bernardino, the Bay Area, and in the San Joaquin Valley. He’s also looking at retaining the students who come to the campus, giving them the means to advance through the academic rigors and graduate with a UC degree.

Part of the reason some amenities were included in the 2020 Project were to make students comfortable and give them what they needed to make long lasting relationships. The Pavilion itself is made to accommodate 600 students and encourages talking, gathering, and social activity.

“All of these were part of the 2020 Project, to create an ecosystem of success - success for our faculty, success for our students, and an environment where staff can work and feel successful in their professional duties,” Muñoz said.

As the university ramps up for fall semester, they’re hoping in the spring, there will be improved conditions with the coronavirus so campus living can be experienced the way it should be. The coronavirus has largely stripped their ability to celebrate and utilize their growth in proper form.

“On the one hand, the campus has an absolutely historic opportunity to celebrate something that won’t happen again likely in our lifetimes, and yet COVID-19 has kidnapped the opportunity to celebrate as a community and to recognize this historic moment,” Muñoz said.

Despite the lack of some pomp and circumstance, the university intends to keep the momentum going as they try to move forward with their research enterprise and get equipment for their buildings. The hope is to put those facilities to use in the near future. Looking toward the future, Muñoz wants to explore the possibility of a behavioral science and medical education building and a school of management. The university is carrying a lot of big hopes and ambitions heading into the future.

“It’s happening here in Merced, next to Turlock and Modesto,” Muñoz said. “We believe we are going to become one of the next great research universities in our country of the stature expected in the University of California system.”



UC Merced — Merced 2020 Project