Meet New Chief Diversity Officer

Delia Saenz

Meet New Chief Diversity Officer

Delia Saenz

By Jody Murray, UC Merced

Horses, cattle and other livestock dotted broad, flat ranchland as the rental car followed Highway 140 toward Catheys Valley. It was February 2022. Delia Saenz was seeing the San Joaquin Valley for the first time. All the views were fresh and new.

And comfortingly familiar.

“I was struck by the beauty of the land and by the life emerging from the fields. Seeing all the critters,” she said. “It took me back to my childhood.”

Saenz was reminded of the farm in south Texas where she spent weekends watching grandma milk cows and cousins ride pigs like little rodeo stars. The farm was 40 miles northwest of her family’s home in Brownsville, a port city hugging the U.S.-Mexico border along the Rio Grande.

Saenz's self-tour through rural Merced County was the latest map point in a life that has taken her from the Gulf Coast to Ivy League halls, from Notre Dame to Arizona’s Valley of the Sun. Within weeks of that initial visit to the Central Valley, she began her new role as UC Merced's Vice Chancellor and Chief Diversity Officer, leading the Division of Equity, Justice and Inclusive Excellence.

Saenz brings the academic rigor of a social psychologist and the sharply honed talents of a facilitator and problem-solver to a young university that has staked its reputation as a place where students from underrepresented backgrounds and cultures are welcomed and nurtured – a place to thrive.

Founding faculty member and Vice Provost Teenie Matlock, who led the search committee that recommended Saenz, described her as “a capable and visionary leader who can transform inclusion and diversity not just at UC Merced, but in the Merced community and the UC as a whole.” Saenz’s schedule at UC Merced has been a whirlwind, meeting with students and campus colleagues but also with Merced city leaders and with nearby peers such as those at California State University-Stanislaus. She asks questions. What strategies and goals do they share? How can she connect with them? How can they work together? She recently attended a film screening sponsored by UC Merced Black Alliance and the community Merced Black Alliance. The documentary, “Invisible Warriors,” spotlighted Black women who worked as machinists and welders during World War II. “Wasn’t that evidence enough to say to this country, ‘The capacity and the intellect are there. Let’s provide opportunities going forward’?” Saenz said. “But we reverted to the habits of discrimination and segregation, and revoked those opportunities. “And isn’t that the issue we’re still facing? Opportunities are being denied. I think students and employees can rise to limitless levels of success if they are simply given a chance.” After earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology at Pan American University in Brownsville, Saenz enrolled at Princeton University, where she received a master’s in psychology and a doctorate in social psychology. She was one of only six Latino or Latina graduate students university-wide at the time. She wanted to land an academic position in Texas, but instead joined the faculty at the University of Notre Dame. After three years in South Bend she went to Arizona State University, where, except for a brief stint at tiny Bennington College in Vermont, she worked for more than 30 years. While maintaining a role as a professor in the Department of Psychology and the Hispanic Research Center, Saenz matched her academic curiosity to real-life application with numerous administrative roles. She served as director for diversity and inclusion for research teams that sound like they would fit right in at UC Merced, such as the Center for Quantum Energy and Sustainable Solar Technologies, and the Center for Biomediated and Bioinspired Geotechnics (“They look to nature to inspire our understanding of Earth as an engineering system,” Saenz said). Saenz facilitated a National Science Foundation initiative by composing principles of engagement that require the centers pay attention to diversity and inclusion. How do they bring in more underrepresented students or those with disabilities? How do you continue to encourage women in STEM disciplines? “We created a space for them to feel comfortable, to feel they can speak up,” Saenz said, “and position them so, when they graduate, they can go into industry or academia or government and be effective leaders – not only from a scientific perspective but a human perspective.” When UC Merced came calling, Saenz was chief diversity officer of Arizona State’s College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, the university’s largest.

“Not many people have the depth of knowledge and breadth of experience that Delia brings to UC Merced.”

Vice Dean of Faculty Linda Luecken, Arizona State’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

“Not many people have the depth of knowledge and breadth of experience that Delia brings to UC Merced,” said psychology Professor Linda Luecken, the college’s vice dean of faculty. “Her background as a social psychologist gives her a unique theoretical and practical framework from which to approach reaching the goals of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

“I have known her for over 20 years and have come to rely on her sound advice and generosity of spirit.” Another former Arizona State colleague said Saenz worked to incorporate goals of diversity, inclusion and community service into academic advancement. “We had a multitude of accomplishments, thanks to Delia’s leadership,” said Lisa Magaña, a political scientist and longtime friend who has assumed Saenz’s last role with the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences (“I keep saying I have big shoes to fill.”) Saenz said she has researched everything from culture to social identity, from group effectiveness to how it feels to be a minority. But she has never been one to simply collect data and publish in journals. She wants to see how she can take what she learned and make it matter in the real world. That is what she wants to do at UC Merced. “I cannot separate my academic self from my applied self,” she said, “but the blending is so beautiful.”

So the journey continues for this native Texan, the fifth of seven children, a Chicana who has hiked down and up the Grand Canyon, swam in the Dead Sea and expects to enjoy a Sierra hike or two. As she learned during that drive last February, the Valley might be new to her, but it strikes familiar notes of home. “The agriculture, it beats a little differently here but … you can feel the energy,” Saenz said. “And seeing the almond trees were in full bloom – it was spectacular.”

Welcome Aboard

New Faces in University Leadership

Lela Dennis

Associate Vice Chancellor and Chief Human Resources Officer

Lela Dennis brings more than 25 years of experience in human resources in public and nonprofit sectors to UC Merced. She comes from UC Riverside, where she was Deputy Chief Human Resources Officer and Human Resources Director of Employee and Organizational Development. Dennis earned an M.A. in organizational management from Ashford University. Her motto: “Building big relationships equals bold results.”

Jackson Muhirwe

Chief Information Security Officer

Jackson Muhirwe has more than decades worth of experience in information technology and cybersecurity leadership and faculty roles. He comes to UC Merced from UC Davis, where he was Deputy Chief Information Security Officer. Previously, he worked for the City and County of San Francisco as interim Chief Information Security Officer and Director of Cybersecurity Services.

Hector Escalante


Escalante comes to UC Merced from University of the Pacific, where he served as the UOP’s first ombuds. Escalante immigrated from Baja California to the United States with his family when he was 2 years old. The long-time Californian and Marine veteran holds a doctorate in education. Escalante specializes in conflict resolution, healthy communication, and learning and development.

warm memories of in-person commencement

The energies of pride, joy and accomplishment surpassed the low-90s heat sitting over Recreation Field as thousands of UC Merced students and thousands more of families and friends celebrated the first in-person spring commencement ceremonies in three years. In addition to current graduates, the three-day event featured alumni from ’20 and ’21 who had been unable to walk a stage because of COVID-19.


with UC Staff Award

Chou Her came aboard at UC Merced in 2005. He has watched the new university grow into a beacon of possibilities to those from under-represented communities. It’s a path he has followed himself – a Hmong refugee from Laos now serving as assistant vice chancellor of public safety and chief of police.

"It has been and continues to be an honor to serve our campus community,” Her said. “I can't say there haven't been challenges, but overall UC Merced is great place to be."

Recently, Her was honored as a recipient of the Kevin McCauley Memorial Outstanding Staff Award, which recognizes UC staff who encourage equity, diversity and inclusion, are forward-thinking, and do not compromise quality for fellow staff, students or faculty.

The award is presented by the Council of University of California Staff Assemblies. Alvin Cha, president of UC Merced Staff Assembly, said Her worked tirelessly during the pandemic with numerous departments. Cha said several staff members “wished they could clone Chief Her” to multiply his level of support.

Her said equity, diversity and inclusion are cornerstones of an effective organization. “We serve our entire community,” he said, “so having a team that reflects this culture of valuing people and valuing diversity makes us a more effective organization."

We serve our entire community, so having a team that reflects this culture of valuing people and valuing diversity makes us a more effective organization.

Chou Her

OIT Founding Member Ahuja on UC’s Women Rock IT List

Adaptability and a way with people combined to earn Seema Ahuja a place on the UC system’s 2022 Women Rock IT roster. Ahuja, a cloud environment manager and interim Student Information System manager, is a founding member of UC Merced’s information technology team, having joined the university nearly 17 years ago.

The citation for the UC honor says Ahuja “connects with people at a personal level and moves efficiently to provide key information.” Ahuja said she appreciates the support of her IT colleagues, especially Nick Dugan and Avi Badwal.

“They have empowered me to take risks and believed in me enough to allow me to take on multiple roles,” she said.

WELCOME new staff

February 1 - May 30, 2022

  • Elimar Acosta
  • Melanie Alexandra
  • Bekah Baeza
  • Joel Baeza
  • Frank Barajas
  • Evonny Basaldua
  • Danielle Bermudez
  • Maria Bernardino
  • Sharon Butler
  • Rikki Cancino
  • Jessica Cantu
  • Miriam Ileana Centeno
  • Alyssa Del Toro
  • Roman DuChateau
  • Michelle Escalante
  • Erika Ferreira
  • Patrick French
  • Juanita Isela Garcia
  • Isiah Gastelum
  • Diego Gonzalez
  • Uriel Gutierrez
  • Valente Huerta-Infante
  • Alyssa Hunt
  • Kenneth Kanabay
  • Alisa Kravchuk
  • Dickerson Lee
  • Miguel Lemus-Estrada
  • Paris Leonard
  • Christine Lim
  • Moises Lomeli
  • Debra Ann Long-Montoya
  • Brittany Lopez
  • Adam Malisch
  • Jessica Malisch
  • Xavier Maravilla
  • Cynthia Marmolejo
  • Jo Ann Martinez
  • Rafael Melo
  • Leonardo Mendoza
  • Robert Joseph Montano Jr.
  • Julie Morgan
  • Pavan Neelakanti
  • Noel Ortiz
  • Ashley Michelle Ochoa
  • Daniel Okoli
  • Yasmin Olvera
  • Juan Ordaz
  • Sofia Osornio Arreola
  • Susana Paul
  • Claudia Linnette Pena
  • Gustavo Perez Jr.
  • Daniel Perez Castellanos
  • Dennis Perez Jr.
  • Samantha Phung
  • Alex Porter
  • Amanda Preston-Nelson
  • Steven Puerta
  • Amanda Putnam
  • Madeliene Ramos
  • Irania Rodriguez
  • Roman Romero
  • Rhanda Rylant
  • Patricia Salinas
  • Cecilio Sandoval Aguilar
  • Micaela Sandoval
  • Jose Salgado
  • Nancy Tejeda Figueroa
  • Jennifer Thayer
  • Alma Toledano Jassi
  • Charles Velasquez
  • Antonio Vera
  • Javier Villanueva
  • Christine Wallace
  • Heather Whalen
  • Bee Xiong
  • Cha Xiong
  • Chue Xiong