She Builds a University With Drive, Tenacity

Times Staff Writer

Former University of California President Richard C. Atkinson recently told the story of a dream he had about Carol Tomlinson-Keasey, chancellor of the university system’s new campus near this San Joaquin Valley city.

“It was like she was Joan of Arc,” Atkinson said, laughing at the memory. “She was on a white horse, wearing ... armor and just sort of marching forward. And that’s how she’s been with that campus. She’s incredibly tenacious.”

Since 1999, when she was appointed founding chancellor of UC Merced, Tomlinson-Keasey has overcome tough environmental, fiscal and political challenges and even battled cancer as she has pressed for creation of the campus, the 10th in the UC system.

Now, despite construction delays that will keep two key buildings from being ready in time, she will mark a professional and personal milestone when she presides over UC Merced’s opening ceremonies on Labor Day. The campus will hold classes the following day, welcoming the first 1,000 members of a student body expected to grow to 25,000 over the next three decades.


“What she’s been able to pull off here is remarkable,” said Shawn Kantor, an economics professor who heads UC Merced’s faculty senate. “Her drive and interpersonal skills were exactly the qualities Merced needed in a founding chancellor.”

Atkinson, who appointed her to the position, puts it another way. “She’s a tough cookie,” he said.

A poised, focused woman with a dry sense of humor, Tomlinson-Keasey, 62, keeps historic photographs showing the early days of other UC campuses on her office computer. She looks at them frequently, taking solace in the fact that several UC sister schools looked far from finished on their own launch dates.

“We’re going to be fine,” she said in a recent interview, seated on a couch in her comfortable temporary office in downtown Merced. “Of course, I’d like it if everything was finished.... In the spring, it rained and rained. I wish it hadn’t. But we’ll be fine.”


The same day, less than three weeks ahead of its grand opening, the campus was a picture of frenetic activity.

One main road was getting a final coat of asphalt, another its center stripe. Construction trucks lumbered about. On a broad expanse of dirt in front of the residence halls, workmen carefully unrolled giant wheels of fresh sod. Nearby, other workers dredged a small lake, a onetime water hazard for an old golf course on the property.

With the main classroom building and a science and engineering facility not yet complete, Merced’s first classes will meet in the library’s two finished wings, as well as in a large, airy assembly room in one of the residence halls.

Unfazed by the noise, dust and relative chaos, the chancellor led a motorized cart tour of the new campus. She pointed with pleasure at signs of progress and told construction stories, including one about the mice that took temporary refuge in the library, startling newly arrived staffers.


Ignoring possible damage to her high heels and elegant knit suit, she also waded gamely into a sea of tall dry grass to pose for a photographer. “I run around here in heels all the time,” she said. “I don’t worry about it.”

Tomlinson-Keasey learned flexibility early on.

Her father served as a career officer in the U.S. Army. By the time she graduated from high school -- in France -- she had moved a dozen times, living in Georgia, Texas, Kansas, New Jersey and Japan, among other places.

Her husband, Blake Keasey, a forensic psychologist in private practice, is also a child of the military. They have an adult son and daughter and three young grandchildren.


She earned a bachelor’s degree in political science at Penn State, a master’s in psychology from Iowa State and a doctorate in developmental psychology from UC Berkeley. She taught psychology at several colleges before arriving at UC Riverside in 1977.

After 14 years at Riverside, where she rose to acting dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, she became vice provost and dean of UC Davis’ College of Letters and Science.

In 1997, she was appointed to a vice provost’s position at the UC system’s Oakland headquarters. Her portfolio included overseeing planning for the new campus near Merced, which had been chosen over several other Central California sites in 1995.

For a while, she commuted, spending a couple days each week in Merced. She soon realized that was not enough to push the campus forward. “You’re greeted as a carpetbagger,” she says now of the community’s initial skeptical response to her -- and to the university. “You’re not here all the time and people don’t know you. We weren’t going to get it done that way.”


She urged Atkinson to recommend that UC’s regents appoint a chancellor who could advocate full time for the school and oversee its construction. After a nine-month search that considered about 100 candidates from around the nation, they did, naming Tomlinson-Keasey to the job, which now pays $253,600 a year.

“Nothing compares to building a new campus,” she said. She and other UC officials hope this first new UC campus in four decades will help accommodate a continuing boom in the state’s college-age population and boost college-going rates in the San Joaquin Valley.

Tomlinson-Keasey has lobbied legislators, talked up the campus with regents and delivered scores of speeches to service clubs and other groups throughout the San Joaquin Valley.

She recruited and hired UC Merced’s key administrators and faculty members and helped develop its academic program, which melds some traditional elements with others, such as energy and the environment, of special relevance to the farming region.


She helped decide what the school’s mascot should be -- the golden bobcat, native to the area -- and where its roads and sewer lines should go.

And she kept up the grueling pace, even after she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001 and underwent months of treatment. Often, she would stop at her doctor’s office for radiation therapy en route to a 12-hour workday, joking with her staff that the treatments were just her “tanning salon.”

“It’s fair to say that given what she was dealing with on the personal level, not everyone would have been willing to stay there and even try to continue,” said M.R.C. Greenwood, UC’s systemwide provost and a former colleague of Tomlinson-Keasey at UC Davis. “She’s a woman who has great personal fortitude, a very quiet and personal strength.”

An energetic, active woman who enjoys snorkeling and scuba diving vacations with her family, the chancellor said her treatment was successful. “So far, so good,” she said. “That’s all you can ever say.”


She and the university had to weather other significant setbacks.

Environmental troubles, including concerns about an endangered shrimp, required the campus site to be shifted away from the wetlands that serve as the tiny crustacean’s main habitat. In addition, the state’s fiscal crisis caused UC Merced’s opening to be delayed one year.

At the same time, Tomlinson-Keasey had to navigate the complex politics in Sacramento and locally. Tagged the “biggest boondoggle ever” by former state Senate leader John Burton (D-San Francisco), the project attracted critics who questioned the wisdom of building a major research university in a rural community and doing so from scratch.

UC Merced so far has cost about $425 million to plan, build and operate, a spokeswoman said. Its first structures sit on about 100 acres of the 2,000-acre campus site, nearly half of which has been set aside as a nature preserve and for research purposes. The campus will open with about 60 faculty members and 350 staff members, in addition to its initial students.


Around the San Joaquin Valley, the chancellor has worked hard to rally support from nearby cities and repair feelings still bruised over Merced’s victory in the UC sweepstakes. Even now, giving speeches in Fresno and elsewhere, she is careful to mention the latest local vendor to win a contract at the university. “I try to show the benefits UC Merced is bringing to the whole valley,” she said.

She has occasionally ruffled a few feathers, including among faculty members, some of whom complain of being consulted too late on some policy questions and academic initiatives.

“She’s extremely driven, and that’s probably the only way she could get this university up and going,” said Kantor, the faculty senate chairman. “But that can run roughshod over the idea of shared governance. I wish she would consult the faculty more. We want to participate even more fully with the administration in building this place.”

For now, Tomlinson-Keasey and others at UC Merced are focused on Sept. 5, when the campus will hold its formal convocation ceremony and then open its doors to the public.


Former Govs. Gray Davis and George Deukmejian are scheduled to attend, along with UC President Robert C. Dynes and former presidents Atkinson and David P. Gardner. Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree, a Merced native, is to give the keynote address.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has declined an invitation to attend, a UC Merced spokeswoman said. The governor’s office declined to comment.

Tomlinson-Keasey said there are still days when she feels like “a fire-person on a skateboard,” racing to put out any small flare-up that might threaten its progress.

She took a breath, then smiled. “But we’re nearly there.”