Porter “Squiggle” area photo by Ashu Shah / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

New Directions in the Future of UCSC

Thoughts on plans for privately-developing additional on-campus beds unaffiliated with the college system.

What is the Proposal?

UC Santa Cruz is in a tough spot. On the one hand it has been asked by the University of California to increase its admissions further, and on the other hand it is in an agreement to house on-campus 67% of its student enrollment growth beyond 15,000, as dictated and described by a 2008 legal settlement in response to the 2005–2020 Long Range Development Plan (LRDP) (see settlement page 4). The University’s solution has been to advance plans for the western half of its campus: Porter College and Rachel Carson College dining halls will be enlarged; Kresge College and Family Student Housing, both with deferred maintenance, will be redeveloped to provide 500 beds; and most distinct, an addition of 2,500 on-campus beds will be in the form of housing unaffiliated with the college system.

Where are Changes Proposed?

A July 2016 UC Regent presentation document shows the overall boundary to stretch from the west entry gate to the land north of Kresge College with the student Trailer Park, and to encompass the Porter Meadow and the site of the Porter “Squiggle” sculpture. It is not clear how much of this 113 acre zone will be needed for what may be a 3,000 total bed development — a quantity that would rival about 4 to 6 colleges, combined.

If accurate, the 2,500 unaffiliated beds will primarily house upper division undergraduate students plus some graduate students, whereas the existing colleges will move to solely house lower division students. This segregation of students contrasts with the way the colleges’ residential life has come to be understood at UCSC.

A proportion of the growth is intended to relieve the burden of existing rising admissions taken on at UCSC in recent years. Current admissions growth has created a kind of pressure cooker, degrading the quality of student life. Existing college dormitories have become overburdened, where singles are now doubles, doubles to triples, and lounges are quads. This difficult situation is the root to an explanation that housing construction must be fast-tracked and the University should not get in its way. But it is also a simple fact so many students have been admitted so quickly.

overall boundary — from July 2016 UC Regent meeting presentation document

What Will it Cost?

The housing will be funded using a privatized financial model. UCSC has been chosen by the UC Office of the President to be the first to use the “President’s Student Housing Initiative”, a plan to use “Public-Private Partnerships” as a way to publicly fund the private development of all future housing UC wide.

A project this size may cost nearly a half billion dollars just to build. Given rising rates of student tuition and descending state support, students paying their way for an education may ultimately bear the cost. The private developer and their investors and shareholders will make huge profits. In other words, profit will largely come from student loans and grants.


The project proposal raises a range of questions.

  1. What exactly is the proposal now? While the information publicly available from the July 2016 UC Regents meeting minutes is quite clear, it is also limited and dated. And while the EIR Notice of Preparation, published online on April 21, 2017, drills down a little further, it leaves many questions. What is the schedule and actual site extent? How will the University have a transparent and inclusive public process?
  2. During the longevity of a privatized project, it is not known how UCSC would maintain control. It is fair to ask: what are the consequences of privately developing student housing on the land of this public university?
  3. The UCSC campus is different from other UC campuses due to ecological and aesthetic concerns, but also because of a unique residential housing system — the college system — designed to be fundamentally different from the conventional dormitory model. How does building a project of such scale, and unaffiliated with the college system, consider UCSC’s 50-year legacy of the colleges and the ways they can serve the student academic experience?

What is the Process?

In March 2017, UC pre-approved eight large, nationally-operating private developers to be master developers within the President’s Housing Initiative across the UC system. They are tasked with building and managing 14,000 new beds, to be completed by 2020 — that’s 3 years from now, a very fast timeline.

If UCSC’s 3,000 new beds are privately developed, that would be just over 20% of the entire growth aspirations in privatized housing construction across the UC system. There are ten UC campus, UCSC being one of them. The timeline is not yet publicly available but UCSC has begun their process of selecting the developer to begin the project.

Most recently, on Friday, April 21st, 2017, the University published online its Notice of Preparation for an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) which will lead to an Amendment of the 2005 LRDP. The purpose is to change the land-use designation of a good chunk of the Porter Meadow and part of the area between Family Student Housing and the Porter “Squiggle.” This is required for the University to develop these areas. The Public Comment period for this is from April 11 to May 11 at 5pm, 2017. UCSC will host a “scoping meeting” off-campus at the Santa Cruz Police Community Room on May 4th, 2017, with an info session at 6pm and public comment at 7pm. Comments can also be emailed or mailed to Director of Campus Planning Dean Fitch.

outlined In red : area currently Campus Resource Land (CRL) proposed to become Colleges and Student Housing (CSH) — from April 2017 EIR Notice of Preparation

What is the Historical Context?

With its roots as a 1960s experiment in meeting educational access with educational quality, UCSC was conceived by founders Clark Kerr and Dean McHenry to combine the intimacy of a small liberal arts college with the benefits of a large research multiversity. The animating force to this vision is UC Santa Cruz’s system of residential colleges.

The 2005–2020 Long Range Development Plan was committed to this vision, explicitly stating “the colleges are an essential part of the undergraduate experience at UC Santa Cruz.” The planning framework advocated for new growth above any infill housing (such as those already built) to be in the form of one new college: “The new college will include support facilities such as food service, recreation facilities, study space, and services…” (Full disclosure: I was a student rep on the 2005 LRDP Committee.)

The legal settlement of 2008 requiring UCSC to house 67% of its students enrollment beyond 15,000 was the first document to proposed a specific emphasis on the west campus for housing. In the course of the 2005 LRDP process, the Porter Meadow area was considered as one of a number of sites for a future college. There was no discussion of large unaffiliated complexes — this idea was not informed by the 2005 LRDP.

In 2014, a housing market study cited the colleges as having little benefit to upper divisions students. Yet the survey from the very same study found that 73.32% of students polled wanted the University to in fact “create more academically-focused residential communities.”

The 113 acre west-campus region currently called-out was previously isolated for a west campus housing study in 2015. It is important to observe this study was sensitive to the preferences of those polled to not build at the areas of the Porter “Squiggle” or the Trailer Park, and excluded these areas from final study options. The study notes environmental and planning issues: karst geology lies below much of the campus and the Porter Meadow is part of a groundwater recharge system and has a sink hole; that the Porter Meadow area is designated under the 2005 LRDP as “Campus Resource Land,” requiring environmental review and an LRDP amendment; and the triangle of land between the west entry gate and Family Student Housing, also included within the boundary, is “Protected Landscape” meant to be retained if possible in its undeveloped character.

In each study option, there are never more than 1,000 total new beds. The “recommended” option, titled “Forest,” weaves its buildings in the forest at the northern edge of the Porter Meadow. It is therefore not clear how 500 + 2,500 beds would fit on the west campus, unless the campus departs from the recommendations and maxed-out every site in the 2015 study.

2015 sites and option zoning — from 2015 West Campus Study

What is Privatized Student Housing?

A Public-Private Partnership, or “P3” as they are known, is a strategy for publicly funding or publicly supporting the private development and management of public assets. Private developers enter a partnership as a business seeking to capitalize public assets and generate revenue. Privatized student housing is premised on expediency, private management expertise, cost-savings, and the opportunity of “modernization” to replace “antiquated dormitories.”

Private student housing developers can be privately held companies, or publicly-traded Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs). Arizona State University, for example, is a poster-child for the industry, with a half billion dollars in projects partnered to the massive American Campus Communities REIT, and credited with standardizing private development as a chosen mechanism for university housing. Universities across the nation have been adopting privatization as part of what appears to be a movement in university management, where housing is not seen as part of the university’s “core business.”

If housing is unrelated to the business of universities, then it can be argued its development should have minimal or no impact on the financial profile of the university. By partnering with a private developer, the university has the potential to shift the financing of housing off their balance sheet, with a goal of thus minimizing impact to credit rating and to the university’s capacity to borrow for other projects central to their business.

The President’s Student Housing Initiative was announced to the UC Regents in January 2016. It is based on a need to wrangle enrollment growth, and the need to heed a self-imposed limit on debt, and thus not take take new loans, to finance housing. It is also explained as a way to address skyrocketing rental costs. The May 2016 UC Regents meeting recorded that to juggle rent affordability and developer profit, “long-range projections of increases would be important, particularly with private developers, to ensure that price escalations would be appropriate.” (page 4–5)

While the Housing Initiative is the biggest unified, systemwide P3 effort, it is not in isolation. The UC system has been developing a P3 portfolio, and P3 housing has been used on and off campus at UC Davis. In October 2016, as reported in the Sacramento Bee, UC Merced broke ground on a 3.6 billion dollar P3 deal with a single developer to double the size of its campus. The same article cited that in 2015 Governor Brown signed a bill enabling the UC to pursue P3 projects without legislative consent. Increasing pressure for the UC to open its doors to privatization may mirror that for privatizing transportation infrastructure and prison facilities. The UC pursuit of privatized student housing will literally create a new market for private student housing in California.

What is Privatized Student Housing… at UCSC?

The first step in a Public-Private Partnership is for UCSC to lease campus land to one of the eight pre-qualified master developers who will then own, build, operate, and lease back the use of their facilities to the University under a long-term contract, managing the housing for decades. The National Association of College and University Business Officers, which recommends privatization as a strategy to public universities, notes a typical ground lease to a private developer can “last between 60 and 80 years.”

The lease-leaseback arrangement should allow the University to financialize housing, converting its purpose and the value of land into money usable elsewhere. In exchange, the private developer team will typically have control over housing design, and as landlord determine what spaces are economically viable to provide for students. The project’s goals will need to arrive at a consensus with the private developer’s return on investment. To maximize profitability, 2,500 unaffiliated beds will be built inexpensively, removing what cannot be monetized.

In an off-campus market, privatized student housing typically seeks to maximize profit by adding amenities and boosting rent, relying on the fact students are typically not paying for the housing themselves, and more likely to pay more, as it is either their parents who pay or themselves in the future via loan debt. Additionally, when off-campus, the work of a private developer is more easily able to participate in the competitive market of a city with many players and interests.

But in the on-campus housing scenario of UCSC, it is likely to be a different approach due to UCSC’s physical separation from the City of Santa Cruz, expensive costs for building on challenging topography, and because the proposed housing is intentionally not paired with services, academics, and administrative spaces. A single, large developer on-campus will have a monopoly and little competitive reason to go above and beyond.

Privatized on-campus development at UCSC is likely to be bare-bones, prioritizing rentable square footage over amenities, such as those spaces the UCSC colleges have historically been so deft at integrating into residential life, such as student services, offices and classrooms.

The Colleges ≠ Conventional Housing

The agency of students has been very high at UCSC. This is due in large part to the college system. College housing is central to the core purpose of the University. As written by the students of the Cowell History Workshop 144G, under the guidance of Cowell’s first Provost, Page Smith, and published in their 1970 book Solomon’s House, a Self-Conscious History of Cowell College: “Such sharing of collegiate life, would encourage a sense of belonging to a common endeavor, to a true intellectual community, giving a meaning to the whole, which would transcend the sum of its parts so that none of its members need ever feel alienated.” Over the University’s first 50 years, to a great extent this original idea has held true.

A bare-bones approach, siphoning off a class-specific portion of the student body to unaffiliated housing, misses the benefit that colleges can provide all students. In addition to blending academic, social, and administrative programs, the community is shared with a faculty Provost who lives at the college, and collaborates with a dedicated team of student life and activities staff, affiliated faculty, and graduate teaching fellows who contribute to the specific educational theme or motto framing each community.

The spaces supporting interactions among students and faculty right outside a student’s door are intellectual owned by the college community. These are not small dormitory lounges or a library halfway across campus. Instead they are activities offices, student organization offices, classrooms, libraries, art galleries, cafes, dining halls, performance venues. Students can organize activities with administrative support, collaborate with faculty, or run a cooperative business. In close proximity, different functions and people don’t just coexist, they interact. Where you live is connected to where you learn.

Upper and lower division students living side-by-side allow for inter-year friendships, bonding and collaboration. Upper division students mentor frosh as fellows of the same community, bringing them into the fold so they can become the next generation of leadership.

Upper division students are more likely to want independence, but they will not want isolation. If privatized student housing lacks authentic amenities, the stripped-down housing may become an island, adrift from the cultural meaning, and even branding, of the University. It is possible developers might arrive in the City of Santa Cruz looking to build competitive and higher quality housing to lure students off campus.

The Original Recipe of UCSC

With increases in enrollment, where will students be instructed? Will the student-teacher ratio grow? Where will they eat, not as anonymous numbers, but as unique individuals and, maybe, recalling UCSC’s earlier days, break bread with faculty? And where will all the support spaces for student activities and organizations go?

It is true UCSC has expressed their intent to build more academic buildings. At the July 2016 presentation to the UC Regents, it was said the infrastructure built around campus for temporary student housing in the form of trailers (a stop-gap measure to be pursued before the west campus project is completed) would eventually be used for non-housing buildings constructed in the future. The University of California also supports loans for the construction of new academic buildings. And so it seems if UC Santa Cruz absolutely must grow, it could find a way to creatively juxtapose funding models, and to even phase construction as was done at Colleges 9 and 10, in order to build one or two new colleges, each combining housing and academics.

The irony is the college system is a recipe for allowing the campus to grow while simultaneously retaining an intimate, collegiate experience for its students. The original 1963 Long Range Development Plan proposed a land-use framework for as many as 20 colleges serving a student body of 27,500 by 1990. There are many reasons to not pursue this scale now, of course, but as a framework it still works. In fact, now, as much as ever, the college system makes sense.

The truth is the colleges were never conceived as a mere physical arrangement of buildings in a forest, but are a totalizing, programmatic vision for education. This collegiate education comes not simply from classroom time, but the integration of those academics with an array of activities beyond the classroom and united as a community. Perhaps the ability of the colleges to function this way has become challenged by a gradual separation of functions and the subsequent centralization of academics, administration, dining, and support spaces. Stripping the colleges of their educational role ends up diminishing their ability to create a meaningful whole — and thus we arrive at a condition where some rightfully see that undergraduate education is currently failing to address the real needs of real students academically, economically, and socially, and that the answer will need to go beyond the classroom. The vision of the college system was meant, of course, to do this.

There is still opportunity to recognize the usefulness of the college system today. The holistic, practical value of the colleges to students was what gave birth to the vision in 1963 and is at the heart of the campus’ purpose.

Cowell College photo by Marco Martinez-Galarce / All Rights Reserved

In Conclusion: Slowness… and Public Process

The University will continue to evolve. Regardless of outcome, or the kind of outcome anyone desires, it is in the best interests of the University to embrace an open, inclusive public process to manage, envision and critique the University’s evolution.

In light of the campus’ first 50 years, there is also value in stewarding the land, given the complex ecological habitat, immense aesthetic and cultural value, and the ways increasing growth would put additional pressure on the City, its transportation network, its infrastructure, and its residents.

The ethos of UCSC suggests it values alumni and affiliates as shared stewards of a campus that is alive and dynamic. Unfortunately, a privatized model of development at a public university suggests a direction where the highest-level of decision-making is not fully in the hands of the University, its trustees, and its stakeholders, but in the hands of unaffiliated investors and shareholders.

An interesting fact about the 2008 legal settlement: if UCSC does not add housing to meet the 67% above 15,000 on-campus housing requirement, then it must limit enrollment. What is more, the settlement is only in effect as long as the 2005–2020 LRDP is in effect. A clever way the University could buy itself time to study the conditions and have a public process, would be to simply slow down and choose to decrease enrollment for a year or two, as right now in April 2017 the University has begun its next LRDP process. When the new plan is released, not only will the settlement be no longer valid but the University could have an inclusive, public process easily integrated into the LRDP process itself.

The process of developing the west campus with unaffiliated housing is not connected to the process of a new LRDP; the two are currently separate. But it makes sense for UCSC to explicitly connect them. The details of new housing could then be informed by the big ideas and long-term thinking embedded in a new LRDP process, as opposed to short-term and reactionary needs. It is a vital opportunity to take the long-view and create a vision for the campus’ future in light of its present and past.