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The Man Behind Merced

By David Brindley

The launching of a major new research university in California is an ambitious and daunting task, spearheaded by who else: an engineer.

“There is no there there,” Gertrude Stein once ironically observed of Oakland, Calif. Without the irony, Stein's statement perfectly describes the University of California at Merced, where there really is no there. Located just 120 miles southeast of Oakland, the birthplace of the illustrious University of California system, UC Merced is literally a field of unbuilt dreams sandwiched between a golf course and a recreational lake and marked only by a modest wooden sign.

And yet, by the fall of 2004, University of California officials hope to have something quite substantial there: the first research university of the new century and the 10th campus of California's highest tier of higher education, the string of prestigious universities that extend from Berkeley in the north to Los Angeles and San Diego in the south. What's more, Merced marks the system's first foray into California's vast San Joaquin Valley, a region historically underserved by the UC system and plagued by poverty, low education rates, low income levels, and a rapidly growing population.

The challenge is not just to create a new university—a daunting task in itself—but to reverse the economic and social declines in the state's Central Valley. In order to accomplish those goals, university officials have proposed a radical solution: ignore agriculture, the current driving force of the Valley's economy and political power structure, and focus on the galvanizing force of technology and engineering. And they have appointed an engineer to spearhead the effort: David Ashley, former dean of the College of Engineering at Ohio State University. As executive vice chancellor and provost of UC Merced, Ashley will oversee all academic and students affairs programs. That is, he will be instrumental in developing the faculty, the programs, and the academic culture of the university.

According to UC Merced chancellor Carol Tomlinson-Keasey, Ashley's “strong background in engineering and technology will prove vital to our creation of the new campus, which will have a special focus in those areas.” It's no coincidence, either, that Ashley is an internationally recognized expert on risk analysis techniques for project management and construction engineering decisions. “My academic career has very much been oriented toward project management and construction management,” Ashley says. That interest stems from summer jobs in construction prior to and during his undergraduate studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned bachelor's and master's degrees in civil engineering. Ashley then went to Stanford, where he received a second master's in engineering economic systems and a Ph.D. in civil engineering with a focus on construction management. Since then, he has held teaching positions at MIT, the University of Texas at Austin, and UC Berkeley, where he was also chair of the civil and environmental engineering department prior to becoming dean at Ohio State.

Although the physical planning and site construction, which will begin in February, will be overseen by someone else, Ashley's expertise is no doubt welcome. At the same time, the project is a valuable learning experience for Ashley. “I'm having fun,” he says. “How many people that teach construction management will have a chance to see it so much first hand?” Handed the opportunity to create something new, Ashley is doing just that by developing an academic structure for the university that is based not on colleges and departments but on divisions.

UC Merced will be structured along the lines of three academic divisions: the division of engineering, the division of natural sciences, and a division that combines social sciences, humanities, and the arts. Within those divisions there will be no departments. (Although degree programs, such as in specific engineering fields, will be established to gain appropriate accreditation for granting degrees.) The primary impact of this structure is to move the administrative focus from specific departments to the broader-based division. In addition, the university is creating multi-disciplinary research institutes that will be at the same administrative level of divisions and that will be staffed by faculty from all three divisions who will work on collaborative projects.

The ultimate goal? “We have chosen not to start with a department structure primarily because we want maximum flexibility in defining and organizing around academic disciplines,” Ashley points out. “We anticipate that this will encourage and facilitate more interdisciplinary activities.”

Within that academic structure, technology and engineering will play vital roles in the development of the university and of the surrounding region in general. According to Ashley, the school “will have a special emphasis on science and engineering as a primary set of activities because this is a part of the state that really needs that kind of economic stimulus and that really needs to be able to provide the students that are coming from the San Joaquin Valley with opportunities to go into science and engineering activities.” Like David fighting Goliath, UC Merced faces a formidable adversary in the Valley's chronic economic and social problems. While the rest of California prospered during the boom of the 1990s, the San Joaquin Valley remained mired in deep-rooted rural poverty and unemployment. One observer even labeled it the new “Western Appalachia.” The Central Valley may have some of the most fertile land in the nation, but the wealth created by agriculture doesn't trickle down very far and remains in the politically powerful hand of large farmers, leaving many migrant workers destitute and living in shacks and trailers.

What's more, the region's population of 3.2 million is growing 30 percent faster than the rest of California and outstripping local services. Its large concentration of Hispanics, roughly 40 percent of the population and growing, poses specific challenges, since they have historically had the highest high-school dropout rate, lowest college graduation rate, and the lowest median income in the state.

State and local officials are trying to diversify the Valley's economy by recruiting non-farm industries, such as telemarketing and high-tech assembly plants. But companies have had trouble finding enough qualified local residents to fill the positions.

The hope is that UC Merced will play a pivotal role in developing the local economy by creating a community of applied research professionals that will attract new industries to the region as well as foster local industries that will spin off from their research. In addition, the university will train local residents and thereby supply the necessary skilled labor pool for the region's industries.

That's a tall order for a campus that hasn't even begun construction. But the school's innovative academic structure just may be the right lure for bringing high-tech industries to the Central Valley. And Ashley and his colleagues have already begun working on a two-pronged outreach program in local K-12 schools to get more students interested in college and to make sure they are qualified for admission.

To be sure, success will be measured in decades, not just years. But with its own David Ashley engineering the master plan, UC Merced may have a fighting chance.


David Brindley is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.
He can be reached at

An Atypical Administrator

“As with many women, my career path has been a little atypical,” says Carol Tomlinson-Keasey, founding chancellor of the University of California at Merced, which will open in 2004.

That's an understatement. In fact, Tomlinson-Keasey isn't your typical university chancellor. A self-described “Army brat” who lived in postwar Europe and Japan and an avid scuba diver, she's energetic and determined but easily breaks into a warm and inviting smile. Careerwise, Tomlinson-Keasey's trajectory diverged at an early point when a college advisor dissuaded her from going into the law. “I was really interested in being a lawyer. But my major professor said, “Carol, women don't go to law school. Why don't I write you a letter for graduate school where I know you'll be accepted?” This was back in the Dark Ages, she says with a laugh. “No one would do anything like that these days.”

The appointed career was psychology, and Tomlinson-Keasey went on to receive a master's from Iowa State University and a Ph.D. in developmental psychology from UC Berkeley. That led to teaching positions at Rutgers University and the University of Nebraska before she returned to the University of California system in 1977, where she has remained ever since, first at Riverside, then Davis, and now Merced.

In 1986, Tomlinson-Keasey was plucked from teaching at Riverside to become associate dean because, as she explains, “I think the idea was that as associate dean I would be able to listen and be empathetic to all the students' problems and so on.” Empathetic, yes, but also skilled and successful, she quickly vaulted up the administrative ladder with impressive stints at UC Davis before being appointed vice provost of academic initiatives for the entire UC system. Her work on cutting-edge developments in education, including the creation of a systemwide digital library and virtual campus, gained the attention of UC president Richard Atkinson, who hand-picked her in 1999 to be chancellor of Merced, the first new UC campus in nearly 40 years.

Tomlinson-Keasey's long involvement with the UC system serves her well in her new job. In her typically understated way, she points out that “One of the great pluses is that we are part of the UC system, and it has such a great tradition, and the other campuses have been extraordinarily helpful, and the other chancellors have been very selfless in their willingness to share. And that has made this task much, much easier.”

Nevertheless, as she navigates her way through the complex issues involved in starting a university from scratch—including dealing with environmental concerns and competing agricultural interests—Tomlinson-Keasey's proven ability to chart atypical courses through her life will no doubt serve her well.


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