BY CHARLOTTE ALLEN, April 23, 2012, The Weekly Standard
“The middle of nowhere.” That’s the phrase I heard from several Californians when I told them that I was writing an article about UC Merced, the newest and most geographically remote of the state’s 10-campus chain of academically elite, research-focused public universities. Opening in 2005 at a construction cost of $500 million, embroiled in environmental controversies despite its desire to showcase itself as a “green” campus, and enrolling to date only 5,200 students out of the 25,000 projected to materialize by 2030, the University of California, Merced, located about 100 miles inland in the state’s searing and economically depressed rural interior, is the most financially and politically precarious member of the UC system.
It is precarious at a precarious time. The broke (and some say bankrupt) state of California, bedeviled by a $13 billion deficit plus another $700 billion in unfunded pension liabilities for its 225,000 employees, cut funding for the entire UC system by $750 million this year (the system’s overall annual budget is about $20 billion, not counting sponsored research and teaching hospitals). The brand new UC Merced, with a $100 million annual budget, got an exemption from the across-the-board cuts entailing layoffs, furloughs, and program eliminations at the other nine campuses, but that only seems to have exacerbated hard feelings within the UC system. Over the past couple of years, as California has spiraled downward into a 12 percent unemployment-generating recession, faculty and administrators at the more prestigious and prosperous campuses have either called openly for UC Merced’s closure or hinted at withdrawing their own well-endowed campuses from the state system and going private.