Away with the fairy shrimp

July 7, 2000

In a land where malls gobble much of the cash, can California afford another campus, asks Sheldon Rothblatt

Neo-Darwinians can take heart. The latest adventure of the University of California is another example of how universities adapt and survive.

This system of nine fairly autonomous campuses stretching almost from the Mexican border to San Francisco is mutating.

By 2004, the newest University of California at Merced is expected to enrol some 5,000 students and even to put them somewhere.

A community of 25,000 students and 6,600 academic and non-academic staff, not to mention the usual arrivistes and commercial interests, is planned at "buildout" (in the excited patois of planners), perhaps in the third decade of this brave new century.

About 8,000 students are to be housed on campus. The rest will somehow be trucked in. As California is a state whose systems of public transport rarely match the provision for shopping malls, even the optimists are anxious.

While no campus is restricted to a defined catchment area, Merced is designed to serve the burgeoning population of the great central interior, an area roughly the size of New England.

The location is idyllic, the air is fresh and presently inhaled mainly by cows. Merced is the gateway to the magnificent Yosemite National Park, one of the natural wonders of the world.

The land set aside for the campus contains an ecological niche of vernal pools filled with a rare species of fairy shrimp.

It is not easy to explain to valley inhabitants just why an expensive elite research institution is required in a rapidly growing area of some 4 million people.

Significant numbers of Hispanic and Vietnamese families live in the Merced to Fresno region. They, as well as the other inhabitants, have yet to participate in California's dizzying high-tech recovery from the military downsizing of the early 1990s.

More neutral observers wonder if the current buoyant mood will be matched by long-term financial commitments from the state legislature. Constant stockmarket "corrections" suggest caution. A more frugal solution is urged, one that would require the UC system to absorb a larger percentage of the increasing numbers of eligible undergraduates. That is already happening.

But who is to teach them? Within the next decade, according to projections, 7,000 new instructors will be needed throughout the system as the last hirings of the 1960s and 1970s retire or depart.

Such terrific employment opportunities benefit some fields more than others. Humanities and the "soft" social sciences may well be pleased, but these are not subjects of high priority in the global economy (though students, I believe, still want to study them). Luring talent away from the lucrative computer engineering, financial and biotechnology sectors was a problem unknown decades ago.

This is not just California's problem, of course, although the Golden State's world leadership in creating new technologies stimulates a relentless demand for gifted minds.

The much-admired public provision for higher education in California extends back at least 80 years, but the Master Plan system was really not in place until the 1960s.

Since that era of expansion, newer campuses grew, if sometimes slowly. A former president of the system predicted that given California's demography and size, new campuses would have to be built.

However, three early retirement packages as part of the retrenchment of a decade ago made further expansion appear chimerical because of the high front-end costs. There really was no enthusiasm in the president's office in Oakland for a tenth campus, essentially because the state's annual operating budget is notoriously committed as much to prison construction and maintenance as it is to higher education.

The politicians, more than the educators, are behind Merced. A relatively new governor wants valley votes. Key legislators want a celebrity university in their constituencies. But there are more pressing issues.

Elementary and secondary education is weak by any comparative measure. Voters, losing confidence, are exploring other options. Maddening traffic gridlock, no matter the hour, makes commuting a nightmare. Illegal immigration across closely watched but still porous borders remains desperate, adding to the problems of welfare, housing and schooling.

But these are not glamorous issues for the new century. They have been held over from the past, resistant to simple solutions. Efforts to ameliorate poverty and raise skill levels are always disappointing. The university, with a proven track record, is a safer bet.

Everyone prays the designs will be better than prior examples, mercifully softened by the excellent landscaping possible in California's benign climate.

Yosemite will have even more congestion than at present, and the proud fairy shrimps cavorting in their springtime pools will have new masters. But will they adapt and survive? Ah well, all is for the best.

Sheldon Rothblatt is professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley, United States.

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