A 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.