Juan Sánchez Muñoz, president of the University of Houston Downtown, grew up hearing stories about the San Joaquin Valley from his father, who landed there from Mexico to pick grapes in the 1950s.
Muñoz, 53, will be heading there himself in July — as the new chancellor of UC Merced. The UC Board of Regents unanimously approved his appointment Wednesday, along with an annual salary of $425,000.
The Los Angeles native has deep ties to all three systems of California’s higher education. He received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from UC Santa Barbara, his master’s in Mexican American Studies from Cal State Los Angeles and his doctorate in philosophy from UCLA. He taught at Cal State Fullerton and East Los Angeles, Pacific Oaks and Whittier Colleges.
His wife, Zenaida Aguirre-Muñoz, who also earned degrees at UC Santa Barbara and UCLA, is an associate professor of psychological, health, and learning sciences at the University of Houston. The couple have three sons.
“For us, the UC system has really altered the course of our lives and by extension the lives of our children,” Muñoz said in an interview. “We recognize in a very deep, personal way the transformative impact of the UC system. To return to our home state and to the UC system to contribute in some way to its future is a tremendous opportunity.”
Muñoz’ research interests — the learning needs of students who are at-risk and ethnically and linguistically diverse — will serve him well in his new post. UC Merced is the youngest and most diverse of the UC system’s 10 campuses. Among its 8,800 students, 75% are first-generation, 64% are low-income and 58% are underrepresented minorities. The six-year graduation rate of 64% is the lowest among UC campuses, but U.S. News & World Report ranked Merced No. 2 nationally in 2018 for surpassing expected outcomes among universities with demographically similar students.
The campus, which has substantially completed a $1.3-billion expansion project, incorporates intensive academic support for students in classes, summer programs and residential communities. Muñoz said he hopes to build on that work with more services for social and emotional needs, graduate research opportunities and efforts to further diversify the campus.
In Houston, Muñoz launched the university’s largest capital campaign and led the institution’s recovery efforts after Hurricane Harvey. He also presided over increases in enrollment, retention and graduation, along with new degree programs in nursing and data science. Before taking the helm at Houston, he served as vice provost for undergraduate education and student affairs and senior vice president for diversity, equity and community engagement at Texas Tech University.
Muñoz succeeds Dorothy Leland, who stepped down last year, and Nathan Brostrom, who served in the interim. The new chancellor said he hoped to marshal the enthusiasm among UC officials and state legislators to “really elevate this campus and make it an institution of first choice for the highest caliber students and all caliber students.”