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Mike Dunbar: UC Merced chancellor unveils unique plan for campus growth

It took a decade for the University of California, Merced to grow from 875 students in 2005 to the 6,200 students who attend the campus beyond the edge of Merced today.

If Chancellor Dorothy Leland has her way, and she very likely will, it should take only four years for the campus to more than double its footprint.

Leland is often quietly witty, but there is nothing quiet or reticent about what she is proposing. The university’s diminutive dynamo laid out her plans in an editorial board meeting earlier this year. They are big, big plans.

She wants to add roughly 1 million square feet of “assignable space” to a campus with only slightly less than that now. She wants to build an administration center downtown. She wants to put 12,000 construction workers on the job, create $2.4 billion in community assets and increase enrollment by 61 percent to 10,000.

Oh, and she wants private investors to front the money.

We like it.

But public universities – public anythings – are notoriously slow decision-makers. Whatever the question, college campuses are great places to discuss it, debate it, disagree on it, agree that it’s disagreeable, expand it, shrink it, then finally step aside and let someone else do it. It always takes time; too much time.

Over the past two years, Leland has grown increasingly dismayed over turning away so many applicants as the pace of enrollment growth slowed. Considering that UC Merced has always attracted the highest percentage of first-generation college students of any UC campus, she called reversing that trend a “moral imperative.”

Besides, Leland admits to considering retirement in a couple years. With no time to waste, she got innovative.

Leland settled on the Design, Build, Maintain model used for major projects in private industry, but rarely for public projects.

Basically, the university is working with three companies or consortiums (from the original seven) to develop plans for 1 million square feet of additional working space on the campus. That space can be assigned as needed for academic buildings, residence halls or support facilities – it’s all assignable.

“We’re not specifying the number of buildings, but we are specifying X number of square feet to do this and X number for us to do another thing,” said Leland.

How those specifications are met is up to the winning bidder. How that space is used is up to the school.

Could it be a medical school? Maybe someday. Could there be additional engineering labs for driverless vehicles or solar batteries or bio-medical research? Yes, and much more. Then it could be something different two years later.

The winning bidder does the design – based on the school’s specs – then starts building. They get paid at various milestones, the largest chunk when space becomes “available” to students.

Their involvement doesn’t end there. The consortium is responsible for maintaining the building over the course of 20 years. Then the building becomes the responsibility of the UC.

“My business is to cut through the thorns and bushes and be responsible in a business way,” she said. “But also to be responsive to why we’re here.”

Specifications go out in September and Leland hopes to have chosen a design-build team by early 2016. Completion target is 2020, hence the project’s title.

This is not the usual way public universities are built.

“I knew enough to know that I didn’t know enough,” said Leland. “We couldn’t get off the gerbil wheel.”

So Leland hired a nonconventional vice chancellor, Dan Feitelberg, out of the banking industry. Their unconventional thinking unlocked the gerbil cage, to borrow her metaphor. Now lots of gerbils are watching.

Leland said CSU Channel Islands is hoping to borrow UC Merced’s playbook. Other UCs are paying close attention; the new vice chancellor has become very popular.

Leland’s sense of humor is both sly and wry. She talks about squeezing money out of turnips.

We prefer to think of her squeezing reality into big dreams. The sooner she can begin, the better.

Modesto Bee Opinions Page Editor Mike Dunbar can be reached at mdunbar@modbee.com or (209) 578-2325.

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