On the surface, the arrival of Juan Sánchez Muñoz BS ’90 as the fourth chancellor of the University of California-Merced might have seemed fairly normal: sunny June day, tour from outgoing interim chancellor Nathan Brostrom, visit to downtown Merced with the city’s Mayor, Mike Murphy.
Yet Muñoz had accepted the job without having ever set foot on the school’s campus and he found a school that, despite the largest class enrollment in its history, was operating at less than 10% of its residential capacity of roughly 4,000.
Here he was, brand new to the role of chancellor, coming to lead a university he had never been to before, during a pandemic posing the most significant challenge in its fifteen-year history. And yet, there was something recognizable about this situation and even this place. A seasoned higher education administrator, Muñoz was serving as president at University of Houston-Downtown in 2017 when Hurricane Harvey wreaked $125billion worth damage and submerged 25- 30% of Harris County (where Houston is located).
“One thing that Harvey helped teach me is don’t overreact or move too quickly,” he recalls.
Although Muñoz is discussing his approach to emergency planning and damage control, it could also describe his collaborative management style. “Inclusive,” “progressive” and “forward thinking” top the list of words which Professor Patrick C. Hughes Vice Provost at Texas Tech University where Muñoz served in various leadership roles for thirteen years, would use to describe him. Hughes first met Muñoz at the preschool both of their children attended. “He showed an interest in the lives of families there,” he recalls. “I learned later that this is the kind of colleague he would be, too.”
But it was more than just crisis management that made Muñoz’s first day and months on the job familiar. The newest of the UCs, Merced has a unique profile. Its student body is roughly 75% first generation college students, the majority are designated as federally in need with over 60% are eligible for Pell Grants (which are awarded on the basis of exceptional financial need). Merced has the highest percentage of first-gen and low-income students in the UC system. 55% of undergraduate students are Hispanic (vs. roughly 25% system-wide).
“You have an overwhelmingly diverse campus of students that are first in their family, that come from very modest circumstances,” says Muñoz, “so they face some adversity in terms of their access to information, their familiarity with the landscape, the milieu of higher ed. They may be apprehensive to ask certain questions, they may be reluctant to seek out help on occasion, so what we have to do is ensure this campus is populated by people who come from similar backgrounds.”
People like their new chancellor.
The Long Haul
“I have not enjoyed the traditional sort of introduction to the campus that would normally be the case,” Chancellor Muñoz reflects. If he seems to be understating the pressures placed on him, perhaps it’s because he knows the drill. “There’s no doubt in my mind that having gone through Harvey that there were valuable lessons I hope I’m applying effectively now.”
Muñoz is tasked with considering testing, quarantine and isolation capacity, collaboration with government agencies on a coordinated response, preparing faculty to pivot according to fast-changing dynamics, and a myriad of other tasks that are not typically a part of the job description.
Yet he is also thinking post-pandemic.
He wants to nearly double the number of students by 2030, grow the number of graduate students (currently just 8% of the 9,000-student population), and launch a school of management. Perhaps his greatest ambition is to become “an example of an institution that disrupts people’s sense
that there’s some conflict between access inclusion and excellence—that those needn’t be mutually exclusive.”
The new chancellor sounds like he is planning to stick around for a while.
“It’s still a very young campus,” he notes. “It’s still beginning to shape its identity which allows one to contribute to the formation of the identity.”