[This story was originally published on Jan. 12, 2018 and updated with additional reporting on Jan. 17, 2018. ]
John Aird had a feeling UCSC leaders were preparing to make a big ask.
Aird is the co-founder of the Coalition for Limiting University Expansion (CLUE), which has been relatively quiet in recent years. He admits to wishing he hadn’t supported a 2008 settlement agreement that allows UCSC to grow with a few stipulations limiting its impact. These days, Aird’s serving on one of three new groups that will provide input on the university’s next Long Range Development Plan.
“I expected that the university was going to present this committee with their case to grow. I expected that. You would have to be blind not to realize that the process to reach out to the community was part of an effort to avoid the backlash that happened last time,” he says. “What I didn’t expect was an increase that large. This is a 50 percent increase.”
UCSC Chancellor George Blumenthal officially announced Friday, Jan. 12, that local government and community leaders should explore the idea of expanding the UCSC campus to accommodate 28,000 students as early as 2040. That’s an increase of nearly 10,000 additional students over the school’s enrollment totals from last year.
“It’s just the reality of the world we live in. There’s no doubt about that. The notion that we’re going to cap enrollment is simply not realistic,” Blumenthal told a private gathering of local media the day before his announcement. “It’s a pipe dream.”
The school’s new goal, he says, is in line with UCSC’s values of embracing diversity and supporting social justice, while the state’s population grows and California’s prestigious public universities become even more competitive for already qualified students.
UCSC is currently embarking on its new LRDP, and will study the feasibility of the 28,000 number Blumenthal has suggested. He stresses that there will be a long list of unknown factors over the next 22 years, and he says he’s open to hearing what the community has to say. He hopes community members feel the same way about hearing his ideas.
City Councilmember Cynthia Mathews, who serves on the Community Advisory Group, says there was a “collective gulp” at Friday’s meeting—followed by concern about Santa Cruz turning into a “company town.”
Santa Cruz County Supervisor Ryan Coonerty says he was hoping the university would announce that it would not be growing at all. In the coming days, he expects the community to have grave concerns about “the big three” issues where UCSC has an impact on the city of Santa Cruz—housing, traffic and water.
“It only reinforces the city and county’s position that UCSC shouldn’t grow, that we’re already overly impacted, and that if we do grow, they need to put all that growth on the campus, so it doesn’t affect our local housing supply, which is in crisis,” says Coonerty, who also serves on the Community Advisory Group.
Of all the impacts, Coonerty says the biggest issue is housing, because rents are already so high and because housing growth affects the other major issues, like traffic and water.
As Santa Cruz mayor in 2008, Coonerty worked with Blumenthal on the agreement for the previous LRDP. That plan allows UCSC to grow to 19,500 students as early as 2020, and the campus agreed to limit its impacts. For instance, the agreement promised that UCSC would house two-thirds of all new enrollment growth.
Blumenthal is optimistic that UCSC can make a housing commitment like that again in this LRDP, although he says that the university isn’t legally obligated to.
“That’s something that has to come out of the process,” he says. “I’m just getting up here and telling you what is the charge that I gave to the LRDP committee to think about. Now, they may come back and say we should house three-quarters of our students. They may come back and say we should house all of our new students. They may come back and say, ‘This is not sustainable.’ I don’t think they’ll do that. This is just the beginning. I wanted to set a number and a timeframe so that people can start to plan and think about, ‘What would you have to do in order to make this work?’ We’re not prepared to make a commitment one way or the other.”
Coonerty says that the effects of campus growth will always be more important than the enrollment number itself, but he feels it’s hard to imagine growth of this magnitude working for Santa Cruz at all.
“I’m open, as always, to working with the university on reducing the impacts,” says Coonerty, who represents District 3, which includes UCSC. “I always think it’s helpful to focus on the impacts, rather than the number. But at the end of the day, we can’t have that much growth on a community this small.”
Blumenthal stresses that the university is not announcing that it will, no matter what, grow to 28,000 students. But he still believes “it’s better to pick a number that’s expansive.” He says that this number did not come down from the University of California Office of the President, although he says administrators would be “unhappy” if UCSC tried to cap expansion.
“I made a choice to give [a number] that I thought was not an unreasonable one to consider,” he says. “Is it magical? Did I have a mathematical formula that got me there? Of course not. But I think it’s quite reasonable. And we have to study it. We have to understand what it means.”
The school is also planning to build a new housing development with a public-private partnership, and Blumenthal hopes that, if the project becomes successful, it will provide a model going forward for new housing developments on campus that lessen UCSC’s impacts on the city.
Listening to Blumenthal’s explanations, it’s hard to make out what the future of the school will be in the next few years, let alone two decades into the future. He says that if the campus grows at a rate of 400 students a year between now and 2040, that would allow it to grow to about 28,000 students, and he explains that there are plenty of unpredictable unknowns over the next 22 years that may offer exciting solutions.
At the same time, Blumenthal says that the university is at capacity right now—not just in terms of housing, but also when it comes to classrooms and basic infrastructure. Blumenthal doesn’t know when UCSC will even reach its target of 19,500 students, which it can legally do in a couple of years.
“I honestly don’t know. We’re getting closer. We’re now over 18,000 students. We are getting closer, but we don’t have the capacity to grow today like we had in the past. Inevitably, our growth has to slow down,” he says. “We don’t have the facilities. We don’t have the classrooms. We don’t have the laboratory spaces. It isn’t a question of getting a bigger shoehorn to shove everybody in. We just plain don’t have the seats. I don’t know. There will be certainly some pressures to grow. If you look for instance at what’s being planned for the UC system for next year, there will be more growth in the UC system than there will be in Santa Cruz.”