Audacious Hope Brings Michelle Obama to UC Merced


michelleA Calbuzz Special Report

By Jessica Trounstine

First Lady Michelle Obama will deliver the commencement address at the University of California Merced on Saturday, honoring the first graduating class that began as freshman at the state’s newest public university campus.

This is an illustrious moment for a university with no short list of challenges.

The Central Valley has long been neglected by economic fortune, reflected in the struggle to build and sustain a university campus there. The UC Regents fought an exhausting battle to win environmental approval of the design and site; in the first year, enrollment at the campus was lackluster; like the other nine UC campuses, it now faces cutbacks, as California’s budget threatens to collapse into a black hole. And yet . . . out of the agricultural dust has risen what promises to be a brilliant future.

Michelle Obama’s acceptance of the invitation to speak at UCM represents this potential, and it represents a level of achievement that already is extraordinary. This is a collection of residents, students, faculty, staff and administrators who seem like Wild West pioneers — committed to a future that others had too little imagination (or grit) to envision.

Merced and the Valley have long been the heart of the state’s agricultural engine. For much (perhaps most) of its history, it also has been sneered at by the rest of the state. Michelle’s decision to make UCM her one and only graduation appearance has brought a modicum of respect from the outside — a little “Wow, really?!” by San Franciscans and New Yorkers alike — while drawing national media attention here, here and here.

Although this attention is what the campus needs, it also has brought to the surface some of the tensions arising from the establishment of the university at this unfortunate moment in history. It’s expensive to build a first class research institution.

The widely reported escalating price tag of the graduation — which has grown to $700,000 from an original budget of $100,000 — is just one small example of these looming costs. The fights it has engendered are not likely to go away any time soon.

Even so, the community of UCM has had the audacity to hope for it anyway, and I’m immensely proud it will be my new home.

Jessica Trounstine, author of “Political Monopolies in American Cities,” is an Assistant Professor of Politics and Public Affairs at Princeton University and incoming Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of California Merced.

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There are 14 comments for this post

  1. avatar Anonymous says:

    Well, it is true the FLOTUS will speak at UCM.


    When you say “no short list” of challenges I assume you meant to say “a long list?” (There is a difference.)

    The Central Valley has not been “neglected by economic fortune” — it has been a massive of engine of wealth. The problem is the wealth is polarized. (Compare John Harris to any of his ranch hands.)

    The struggle to build the campus had nothing to do with local economics — it was all about overcoming common sense, satiating CV politics, and ignoring state economics.

    The “battle to win environmental approval” was about far more than the EIR. It was about a ridiculous backroom decision to take land from a Pete Wilson crony that was so remote and isolated, there wasn’t even a paved road. UC Merced isn’t even in Merced. Guess who will make a fortune off the new valuations of the surrounding land when the university fully develops.

    UCM did NOT arise from the “agricultural dust.” First, the CV is not a dust bowl, it is more agriculturally productive than ever. The only real threat is a lack of federal water. All of which is irrelevant because the UCM site isn’t on ag land in the tilled soil sense — it is a massive engine of urban sprawl in pristine ranch lands, rolling hills adjacent to Yosemite Lake and a county park. All of which are going to be completely trashed by this inappropriate new city sited there for reasons of greed and politics.

    UCM was plopped into a place where there wasn’t even electricity or water. So now not only is the environment being devastated and the state spending billions bringing civilization to this remote place, but the significant opportunity to revitalize any number of existing urban places along Highway 99 has been lost forever. Some “brilliant future.”

    It is hard to believe you have even’t started working there yet. You’ve already joined the CV cult of civic leaders whose only measure of self-esteem and self-respect is in the occasional mention in newspapers OUTSIDE of the CV. We hope the surge of pioneer pride swelling through your veins will carry you through the years of obscurity and isolation until, say, Ed Begley, Jr. gives a speech in the quad.

    (Incidentally, if you want a real measure of this event’s importance to the rest of the world, tell me where FL Laura Bush or FL Hillary Clinton gave commencement speeches. I dare ya.)

    Your convoluted paragraph about the “tensions arising” to the surface is a mastery of understatement. The issues aren’t below the surface, they are an on-going argument about why two Governors, Wilson and Davis, were manipulated into a reckless plan to waste billions launching a new university instead of spending the same dollars more efficiently by expanding and strengthening existing campuses.

    Interesting point about the cost of the ceremony. But honestly $700,000 is a drop in the bucket compared to what has been wasted building this campus in the first place.

    Enjoy your new digs professor!

  2. avatar Susie says:

    UCM is a special place. There is a definite air of excitement and activity that is not present on more established campuses. It is also a wonderfully diverse campus. I had dinner with my son and his friends recently, and we were the only white people at the large table. You can whine and moan about the politics surrounding the founding of UCM, or you can move into the future. UCM and its people are definitely moving to the future. Professor Trounstine will be a welcome addition to that future. Anonymous won’t. Oh well.

  3. avatar Anonymous says:

    Hmmm…methinks Mr. Anonymous (above) is a little touchy defensive. A potato farmer, maybe?

  4. avatar Anonymous says:

    What a whiner! The argument is over – you lost.
    UC Merced is going to do great things for the central valley and CA. Good for Michele Obama for giving the commencement address and thanks to you for writing about it. Good luck in your new position, Dr. Trounstine.

  5. avatar GNS says:

    I think the first Anonymous is Dan Walters.

  6. avatar Dondi says:

    Dan Walters! hahahhaha!

  7. avatar Anonymous says:

    The Anonymous poster who said the CV is not a dust bowl either doesn’t live in the Central Valley or didn’t read in the news some years back about fatal traffic pile-ups on Highway 99 due to dust from tractors plowing the fields.

    And he/she completely misses the point of building a UC in the Central Valley, which is to make a UC education accessible to a region with a very low college-going rate. That rate has already increased by 43% compared to the year before UC Merced opened. Spending the money to expand existing campuses would not have accomplished that.

    Such comments reflect an utter head-in-the-sand mentality about the very real challenges this part of the state has long been battling.

  8. avatar JVB says:

    Not sure what the point of Anonymous is in the post responding to the article, other than not liking the site of UC Merced. But I have to agree with Professor Trounstine on this one. . . For Anonymous to say that the Valley hasn’t been shortchanged economically is to ignore the facts. The nearby 20th Congressional District is the poorest CD in the nation. You can look it up.

  9. avatar Anonymous says:

    I have to say, the original anonymous critique sounds a lot more informed and persuasive than this battery of responses, which probably come from the UM PR office.

    For example, the last poster missed the point completely. Anon didn’t say that the valley “isn’t disadvantaged financially.” He said that the wealth is aggregated. And he is right.

    But other issues interest me: Why did they build in the middle of nowhere? Why didn’t they use this as a tool to revitalize an existing community with transportation and other vital infrastructure (and unemployed workers) in place? What are the connections to Pete Wilson’s cronies in the land deal?

    I don’t buy the person’s argument that the money should have been plowed into existing campuses — but a UC Fresno sounds a lot more sensible than this UC Cow Patty.

    Those of you objecting should be a little less sensitive about your pork. No one is calling for the university to be shut down. But please, spare us the “love us or leave us” ultimatum — that we either have to celebrate this wonderful testament to the future of humankind, or we’re just totally wrong.

    The point of a university is to stimulate debate and dissent — not quash it under the heels of misty-eyed sentimentalism and civic pride.

    Professor Trounstine ignited a fresh debate over an old topic. For that she should be thanked.

    (Is she the wife of Calbuzzer Phil?)

  10. avatar Roberts and Trounstine says:

    Professor Trounstine is the daughter of Calbuzzer Phil.

  11. avatar MaryWesty says:

    I hope a video and/or transcript of Michelle Obama’s speech is made available. If it’s even close to Barack’s speech at Arizona State, we are in for a treat. He hit a home run, playing off of the “body of work” slam for not having achieved much (huh?!).

    OK, Michelle, take it higher!

    Finally, congrats to Professor Trounstine!

  12. avatar jessica says:

    A side note/extension: Locating a university in an existing community can be extremely problematic. Lower income residents and people of color tend to be the ones who lose the most in these kinds of development scenarios. If you are interested take a look at the history of the University of Illinois, Chicago. But this is really beside the point. I wasn’t weighing in on the long political battles that led to the choice of Merced over other communities or the decision to site the university away from denser development. I was taking these factors as given, which of course they are. Revisiting these questions may be important for figuring out how to mitigate potential future inequities in the valley but they are simply irrelevant to a discussion of Michelle Obama’s visit. It would be a terrible outcome for many reasons if UCM failed to attract top students, top faculty, funding, etc. in the future. Obama’s visit is one small step toward ensuring that doesn’t occur. The fact that a determined bunch of seniors made it happen is all the more impressive and in my view is exactly what makes UCM such a desirable place to be.

  13. avatar Anonymous says:

    Hmmm. Me thinks you need a little more of dad’s skepticism.

  14. avatar Anonymous says:

    While our First Lady is passing through the Central Valley this coming weekend, could one of the political handlers (e.g. White House Staff) do a cursory ‘advance’ at the Castle Airport Museum in Atwater? During the hurried drive-by, escorts or military aides should also point out the tinted automobile’s window that there are NO “Air Force One” replicas on display — only a slightly battered SR-71 “Blackbird” up on a pedestal! And HU-RAH for the US Air Force one more time, y’all!

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