Q&A: UC Merced Chancellor Dorothy Leland grows her young campus

UC Merced Chancellor Dorothy Leland presides over the smallest, newest and most diverse University of California campus.
UC Merced Chancellor Dorothy Leland presides over the smallest, newest and most diverse University of California campus.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

UC Merced Chancellor Dorothy Leland presides over the University of California’s newest, smallest and most diverse campus. More than half of her 8,000 students are low-income and underrepresented minorities; nearly three-fourths are the first in their families to attend college. This year, in U.S. News and World Report’s rankings of public universities, those students helped the campus climb 18 spots, to No. 2, for surpassing expected graduation rates.

Leland recently spoke with The Times about her changing campus.


Your rankings climbed so much. How did you do it?

I was thrilled. We’re only 13 years old. We’re building this plane as we’re flying it. People always say, `Well, their graduation rates are lower than the rest of the UCs,’ but most of our students are poor, they’re first generation, minority. If you look at how those students are predicted to do, we’re 16 points higher than predicted.

We’re just beginning to put into place practices that have been shown nationally to be successful for student retention and student graduation. In the last couple of years, we’ve had writing labs, we’ve had math tutoring labs. This year we’re creating STEM residential learning communities so students can come in as freshmen and really get a lot of extra support at living-learning communities. There are national studies that show that feelings of attachment to a campus are a retention boost. Many of our students just feel it’s a vibrant community. They feel comfortable. They feel as if their cultures are represented. I think that helps.

How did you score so well for teaching quality among public universities?

Research universities can have the reputation for not caring about undergraduate students — and in fact, historically for a long time they were a second thought. But we got to start over right from the beginning. We try to hire for people that really want to work with our students because of who they are. There’s no research university in the nation that, over time, has more capability to prove that you can be a high-powered research university and have strong commitments to diversity. So that’s pretty special.

UC has started studying the possibility of dropping the SAT and ACT requirements. Would you welcome this?

I would. The tests are biased against the kinds of students Merced is known for accepting. The trick will be [seeing] if there are other measures that faculty can use that are even more reliable in predicting success. And I think they’ll find them because there are other national models out there. Some very, very fine institutions have dropped mandatory SATs.

Your campus is expanding like crazy. What’s the latest?

If you were standing on campus now, you would see 13 buildings and assorted other things all going up at once. It’s like building a small city and it’s being done in four years. …We will have double-sized the campus frankly in a way that’s never been done before in public higher education.

How is UC Merced helping the Central Valley?

The Central Valley still has employment rates that are significantly lower than the state average. It still has a very small percentage of people who go on to postsecondary education and ... inadequate access to healthcare. We’re trying to work on all fronts. Our students love going into schools and working with kids from similar backgrounds. We’re boosting the economy through [the expansion project] — it’s about a $1-billion impact over a four-year period. We opened two venture labs in Merced and Modesto that’s all about providing an environment of support to help students and faculty take innovative ideas to the next step of small business or the marketplace. We’re trying to stimulate new kinds of business through the research we’re doing. We’re doing a lot of research on Central Valley issues — water, climate issues, valley fever and a large public health program that’s growing exponentially.

What’s next for Merced?

We just need to keep on, keep on. We’re getting our buildings up. We need to hire faculty to continue our improvement in student success and student graduation. And then in a few years we need to take a deep breath and worry about how we’re going to grow for our next phase. Our students come because they see themselves as pioneers and as creators. They know they’re not going to the most famous UC, but they’re going to a new UC and they’re helping to build it.

Twitter: @TeresaWatanabe