Chayla Fisher, co-chair of UCSC’s Student Environmental Center, UCSC growth to 28000 students

UCSC Hones Pitch for Adding 9,000 Students

Underfunded, and at capacity, university asks for input with three new forums

Chayla Fisher, co-chair of UCSC’s Student Environmental Center, isn’t buying notions that university expansion is better for low-income students. PHOTO: KEANA PARKER

Santa Cruz’s Ron Pomerantz says his jaw dropped when he heard UCSC would explore adding about 9,000 more students by 2040.

“To gain 50 percent more doesn’t even compute. You’re kidding, right?” says Pomerantz, a community activist and retired firefighter. “Everyone needs to be involved.”

He says the announcement felt like a “decree” when it came down from Chancellor George Blumenthal, because it predated any community input.

These early stages of the new Long Range Development Plan (LRDP) process allow the university to test its 28,000-student figure, says UCSC spokesperson Scott Hernandez-Jason.

Squeezed by state enrollment pressure, UCSC—which currently enrolls about 19,000 students—is holding public meetings in March as part of its process to study possible growth from 2020 through 2040. Meanwhile, current students complain of already impacted infrastructure, while Santa Cruz deals with a sharp increase in local rents.

In the wake of Blumenthal’s announcement that the university would “study” and “explore” the possibility of expanding to 28,000 students, the university is holding three public forums, each beginning at 7 p.m.—one on March 5 at Hotel Paradox in Santa Cruz, another on March 6 at the Civic Plaza Community Room in Watsonville, and a final one March 8 at Capitola’s Mid-County Senior Center.

Hernandez-Jason says UCSC needs to grow to be more accessible to low-income communities. “A record 56,000 frosh applied in fall quarter. So did 12,000 transfer students,” he says. “If we roll up the drawbridge, some students won’t be able to get an education at UC.”

The university last year showed early signs of testing public opinion for an expansion, including a pitch about improving diversity and access. While compiling a report for UCSC, market research company SimpsonScarborough interviewed local residents, as well as more-prominent “influencers of Santa Cruz and Silicon Valley. Anonymous statements in the report say UCSC brings value to Santa Cruz, particularly economically, although many portrayed the university as a bull in a china shop, and they welcomed more transparency and community involvement.

Participants in the survey were split in their support of UCSC’s growth, with the influencers more supportive of growth than Santa Cruz residents.

Pomerantz says surveyors contacted him last year for their report, and he remembers diversity being part of the pitch—which he viewed as a tack to manipulate a sense of “liberal guilt” out of the community.

Chayla Fisher, a sophomore co-chair of the Student Environmental Center, is serving as one of two student representatives in the LRDP planning process. She says the university should serve its existing student population better before expanding. Shocked by the 28,000 figure, she argues that the new hypothetical target doesn’t actually help diversity goals at all.

“We don’t even have the resources to support students now, especially those of color and low incomes,” Fisher says. “If we bring more students in, they will face harsh circumstances. I don’t think that’s supportive of students of color and lower-income students.”

Fisher describes an inadequate supply of athletic spaces, kitchens, study spaces, and classrooms. One of her classes expanded to 350 students, 50 spots over capacity, with students regularly sitting in walkways, she says.

Hernandez-Jason and Kimberly Lau, co-chair of the Academic Senate and literature professor, both say the university has recently made strides to help retention of students of color and lower incomes, with new programs. However, the school’s student-run retention organizations remain largely without consistent university funding, Hernandez-Jason says. According to the most-recent data available, 43.7 percent of first-generation students graduate before their fifth year, compared to 55 percent of students who had at least one parent finish college.

The new LRDP—once it’s finished—will not mandate growth, but rather will guide development and construction. It will include land-use planning, as well as impacts on traffic, wildlife and the city of Santa Cruz. The university is also proceeding with plans for a 3,000-bed housing facility on the school’s west side, which is partly privately funded.

Feedback from the March forums will go to the LRDP planning committee, in order to develop options for the university’s future, while it receives monthly feedback from a Community Advisory Group. Later this year, community members can comment again, with possible scenarios going to the chancellor as early as May. Consultants will then draw up the chosen plan’s impacts, which could take more than a year. After that, the environmental impact report will have another window of public comment.

The university is aiming for more community involvement after the prior LRDP, from 2005, resulted in a lawsuit.

Lau co-chairs the LRDP planning and executive committees. She says that the 28,000 figure may have given community members sticker shock, since the planning extends over a longer period—20 years, instead of the typical 10-15. She says the university has an ethical obligation to accept more students.

“We don’t want to eliminate more students from having this opportunity,” Lau says. “We’re trying to address the problems as we plan. We don’t have the money to fix everything at once.”

But UCSC’s student government released a statement condemning recent growth, explaining that changes have increased demand on academic and facilities staff, to say nothing of the new suggested target. The crunch has created a shortage of resources, like food, housing, transportation, psychological services, and classrooms, the statement said, adding that impacts on the city have made Santa Cruz one of the “least affordable” small metropolitan areas in the U.S.

The university’s original LRDP in 1963 set out a plan for 27,500 students by 1990, a vision that included 20 colleges—more than twice as many as the school currently has.

Cautiously optimistic, at least one resident has faith in the opportunity for UCSC to become more accessible to local residents, especially ones from South County communities. MariaElena de la Garza of the Watsonville-based Community Action Board of Santa Cruz County, says the time is right for a conversation about a satellite campus in Watsonville.

A member of the LRDP’s Community Advisory Group, she says she has been the only voice in the room representing South County and nonprofits. De la Garza agrees with notions that this is an opportunity to think big.  

“I want there to be a true community-wide conversation, participation and inclusion so we know what the needs and the opportunities are,” she says. “We’re supporting the school to make sure the right voices come to the conversation.”

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