Great fanfare surrounded the opening of a Palm Desert campus of University of California Riverside on April 15, 2005. The city donated 8.5 acres of land off Cook Street and Frank Sinatra, and loaned the U.C. system $3 million toward the creation of a graduate school with a focus on entrepreneurial studies.
Business mogul and part-owner of the Phoenix Suns, Richard Heckmann even forked over $6 million to help fund it. But eight years later, the campus is hardly bustling on a school day. Since 2006, only 131 people have earned a degree.
Current Program at UCR Palm Desert
"The Coachella Valley itself just couldn't sustain the kind of graduate school we wanted to have here," says Tod Goldberg. He runs the only course of study currently offered at UCR Palm Desert, an online, or "low residency" Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing.
Twice a year, students from the Creative Writing program come in from all over the world to the Rancho Las Palmas Resort in Rancho Mirage to attend classes. That is also where the commencement ceremony is held. In theory, students could get a degree at UCR Palm Desert, and never once set foot on campus.
U.S. Congressman Mark Takano is an alum, and many students are successful, says Goldberg. "Over 75 percent have published or produced."
And Goldberg says the $40,000 tuition for an MFA doesn't use any taxpayer money.
"The fact that we are self-supporting-- that we pay our literal light bill with the money that we earn strictly from the students, not the taxpayers-- answers a very simple question that there is a desire for this kind of university, and a desire for this kind of graduate school, and the students that want to take it," he says.
"So the students don't live here because they live all around the world," adds Goldberg. "And they don't stay on campus because we have to, when they come here, house them and feed them also. So it makes sense to have them take their classes online."
UCR Palm Desert handed out only 22 MBA's before its centerpiece program went dark. Executive Director Tamara Hedges says the campus became a victim of the economy.
"We've hit the reset button and we're working with a lot of other partners, including the city of Palm Desert, to determine what's the best fit for our community here," she says.
"When we opened the campus in 2005, we had two graduate degree programs," Hedges says. "We had an MBA program, which morphed into a very successful executive MBA program, and now it's no longer here at UCR."
Making Use of the Campus
So what actually happens on campus? A couple of nonprofits have set up shop, including the Clinton Health Matters Initiative, and HARC. Movies get screened, art exhibited, lectures held and environmental conservation research is conducted. An oasis was built out back with grant money. "There's an endangered fish here called the desert pupfish, that is federally and state endangered," offers Cameron Barrows, Ph.D., a research associate for the Desert Studies Initiative.
"The university has two main missions," says Barrows. "One is teaching, the other is research. I represent the research end of our mission here."
The school's website prominently advertises the nearly new, yet very empty classrooms and lecture halls available for rent. UCR holds extension classes there a couple times a week.
But ask Palm Desert City Manager John Wohlmuth, if the campus has been a disappointment, and he says "yes."
Despite the disappointment, the city of Palm Desert is essentially doubling down its investment in UC Riverside's Coachella Valley campus. Just recently, the City Council green-lit the gift of another 11.5 acres adjacent to the existing two buildings. Land that, in total, cost the city's redevelopment agency about $11 million to acquire.
"There is perhaps a leap of faith here," says Wohlmuth.
New Medical School Campus
The latest idea at UCR Palm Desert, is to use the new land to build a place for aspiring physicians to learn, perform research, and provide public outreach.
Dr. G. Richard Olds, dean of UC Riverside's School of Medicine explains, "What we're looking to do is build an ambulatory teaching facility that will both take care of patients, but also be an ideal environment to teach healthcare professionals how to take care of patients in outpatient settings."
Olds says a new medical campus will also help fill the void of primary and general care doctors in the valley.
But Olds admits while the School of Medicine now as the land, there's no funding. "And we still have to have an integrated plan," he adds.
As part of the land deal, UC Riverside promised to better utilize UCR's existing two buildings and build another bigger one.