Dorothy Leland on Growing UC Merced

The retiring chancellor of UC Merced doubled the campus size, making room for students to achieve their goals

Dorothy Leland at the Merced 2020 Project groundbreaking in October 2016. Photo by Elena Zhukova

When Dorothy Leland announced her decision to step down as chancellor of the University of California, Merced in August 2019, she did so from a campus fundamentally changed by her presence. By spearheading the Merced 2020 Project, Leland doubled the school’s size during the global Great Recession and amid California’s extensively reduced support for capital projects. Through a landmark public-private venture, Leland has helped grow UC Merced from a fledgling upstart campus to a respected research institution in less than a decade.

Dorothy Leland, Chancellor Emerita, University of California, Merced Photo by Tomas Ovalle

During Leland’s tenure, enrollment grew by more than 4,000 students, 4 new majors were added, and 134 new faculty were hired. How did Leland, once a philosophy professor, become “Queen of the Hard Hats”? The chancellor says the motivation is simply, “The harder the challenge, the more I have to learn, and the more fun it is to actually come up with a solution and push it through.”

A Legacy of Space and Hope

Merced 2020 is an achievement that becomes more pronounced with every detail. The $1.3 billion project began at a time when access to traditional public capital was comparatively nonexistent and undertaking a project of its size may have seemed inconceivable.

But as a first-generation college graduate in her own right, Leland says she was driven by UC Merced’s unique student body. “This project is about the ability to grow a really special, deserving student population who are predominately first-generation and often from underrepresented and low-income families,” Leland says. “At the conclusion of a listening tour after taking the chancellorship, I came to the conclusion that the campus needed two things the most: space and hope.”

In 2011, Leland says the university was looking at the same set of possible avenues for capital development and that none of them worked. “It was as if we were on a gerbil wheel and didn’t know how to get off,” Leland says. “That’s when I knew we needed to look outside of higher education and more broadly in the public sector.” The university eventually reached a public-private partnership with Plenary Properties Merced to execute the entire contract, and the first phase of the billion-dollar expansion was unveiled in August 2018.

The project wasn’t without its challenges. “Our time crunch was serious,” Leland explains. “We had classes scheduled until 11:30 p.m., and students lined up in halls studying because there wasn’t enough room.” Time-to-delivery was critical and, ultimately, successful. Now in its third wave, the project is on track to complete on time and on budget in fall 2020.

To Simply Persist

Leland herself described her tenure at UC Merced as “the most gratifying eight years of my professional career” on the announcement of her retirement. Her own career is a testament to the power of a motivated dreamer. The daughter of an auto mechanic and auto dealer who desperately wanted to be growing oranges in Southern California, Leland watched her father make his own dream come true, though it meant moving his family into a Quonset hut with the four youngest children sharing a single bedroom.

The persistence runs in the blood, and Leland says it might as well be her middle name. “People know that I’m not going to give up,” Leland says. “A lot of my career has been to simply persist.” As a tenure-track philosophy instructor, Leland had no particular aspirations for administration until after rising to a vice president role at Florida Atlantic University, when the presidential bug bit. Ultimately, Leland would land the first presidential job for which she applied, at Georgia College & State University.

It’s at UC Merced, though, where Leland’s personal advocacy was able to partner perfectly with her position. During her time at UC Merced, Leland was a leading proponent for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. UC Merced is home to more than 600 undocumented students, the highest percentage of any UC campus. “These students are the very embodiment of the American dream, and their presence here is unquestionably beneficial to our state,” Leland wrote in a San Francisco Chronicle editorial. “The prospect of life without [DACA] is one of their worst nightmares. It should be ours as well.”

Dororthy Leland signs her name alongside UC Merced students at the final topping off of the Merced 2020 Project, which will be completed late next year. Photo by Monique de Villa

Until the End

While Leland may be stepping away from her academic oversight, she’s agreed to chair the oversight board of Merced 2020 until its completion. It may provide the chancellor a little more time to pursue her love for photography and travel, but she’s resolved not to go anywhere until her students have the space and the hope they need.

“There are so many amazing stories of UC Merced students who aren’t just here for themselves—they’re here for their families and communities,” Leland says. “Anything that I did in my leadership to help make their dreams come true; those are my points of pride.”