EDITORIAL: Leland's plan gives UC Merced chance to grow

In almost every regard, the University of California at Merced has lived up to or passed expectations. It's giving hundreds of San Joaquin Valley students an opportunity for higher education, many of them the first in their family to attend college. And its professors are involved in research on cutting-edge topics, from solar energy to stem cell biology.

More than 5,700 undergraduates and graduate students are on campus. The university's largest graduating class, 900 students, will cross the stage this weekend. More than 17,000 students applied for fall admission, but UC Merced has room to accept only about 1,600.

UC Merced is growing faster in people and programs than it is in facilities. Chancellor Dorothy Leland says that enrollment growth will stall starting in 2016 without new construction. So she and some of her top executives will appear before the UC Board of Regents today and Thursday asking to amend the campus development plan.

Using Urban Land Institute recommendations, they will propose condensing the campus from a projected 355 acres to 182, reducing roads and other infrastructure, and utilizing mixed-use buildings -- classroom, office, research labs, perhaps on top of retail stores.

The change wouldn't be just in what is built, but how to pay for it. Instead of relying on traditional state financing, much of it through bonds, Leland proposes that UC Merced work with a private sector developer and look for private-public financing approaches to get the buildings completed more quickly.

Universities are supposed to be hothouses for innovation, so we aren't surprised that out-of-the-box ideas have emerged. That said, creative financing arrangements with business partners need to be carefully vetted and consistently tracked to assure that taxpayers get the most for their money.

Having a research university in our midst has been a major plus. UC Merced is encouraging students not only to go to a four-year campus but to major in science, technology, engineering or math -- the disciplines most needed for our country to remain competitive globally.

We support the concept of allowing the university to continue to grow and mature, and hope that the regents will endorse Chancellor Leland's proposal.