Carol Tomlinson-Keasey dies at 66; founding chancellor of UC Merced

Carol Tomlinson-Keasey, who became the first female founding chancellor of a UC campus when she was named to head UC Merced in 1999 before the university broke ground, has died. She was 66.

Tomlinson-Keasey, a distinguished developmental psychologist, died Saturday at her home in Decatur, Ga., from complications related to breast cancer, a university spokeswoman said.

UC Merced Chancellor Steve Kang, who succeeded Tomlinson-Keasey in 2007, said in a statement that “UC Merced would not exist were it not for her visionary leadership, her tireless determination and her remarkable gift of persuasion.”

A longtime UC faculty member and administrator, Tomlinson-Keasey was vice provost for academic initiatives in the University of California office of the president in 1998 when she was asked to direct planning for what would become the first new UC campus in four decades.

In the process of leading the effort to build the first UC campus in the San Joaquin Valley, Tomlinson-Keasey faced major hurdles, including a site change and a reduction in the size of the campus because of environmental concerns, political leaders who called the campus a “boondoggle” and a state budget crisis that resulted in a one-year delay in its opening.

The campus opened in September 2005 with 875 students.

“There were lots of times people said this day would never come, but it has and we’re just very glad it’s here,” Tomlinson-Keasey told a cheering crowd of 4,000 dignitaries, community members, parents and students.

Described in a 2005 story in The Times as a “poised, focused woman with a dry sense of humor,” Tomlinson-Keasey had “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 also recruited and hired UC Merced’s key administrators and faculty members and helped develop its academic program -- as well as helping decide where roads and sewer lines would go and helping choose the school mascot: the area’s native golden bobcat.

Tomlinson-Keasey faced a personal challenge when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001 and had to undergo months of treatment. She would often start her 12-hour workdays with a stop at her doctor’s office for radiation therapy, which she jokingly referred to as visits to the “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,” M.R.C. Greenwood, UC’s systemwide provost and a former colleague of Tomlinson-Keasey at UC Davis, told The Times in 2005. “She’s a woman who has great personal fortitude, a very quiet and personal strength.”

Tomlinson-Keasey resigned as chancellor in 2006, saying she wanted to return to teaching and writing. She retired from the university a year later.

The daughter of a career U.S. Army officer, she was born Oct. 15, 1942, in Washington, D.C., and moved a dozen times before graduating from high school in France.

She received a bachelor’s degree in political science from Pennsylvania State University, a master’s in psychology from Iowa State and a doctorate in developmental psychology from UC Berkeley.

She also completed postdoctoral studies at the Institute of Behavioral Genetics at the University of Colorado.

She joined the UC system in 1977 as an associate professor of psychology at UC Riverside.

She became a full professor in 1980 and held faculty and administrative appointments at UC Riverside through 1992, the year she was named vice provost and professor at UC Davis.

She was appointed dean of the UC Davis College of Letters and Sciences in 1994 and was named vice provost for academic planning and personnel in 1995. She moved to the UC Office of the President in 1997.

As a developmental psychologist, she was the author of three books and dozens of articles, monographs and book chapters on subjects such as child and full-life development and how gifted children realize their cognitive potential.

Tomlinson-Keasey is survived by her husband, Blake Keasey; her children, Amber Peters and Kai; her brothers, John, Gene and Alen Tomlinson; and four grandchildren.

Memorial services are pending.

Instead of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the Carol Tomlinson-Keasey Fund. Gifts may be made online or sent to: The Carol Tomlinson-Keasey Fund, UC Merced Foundation, Gift Administration Office, University of California, Merced, 5200 N. Lake Rd., Merced, CA 95343.