UC, CSU ill-equipped for earthquakes

Too many UC and CSU campuses aren’t equipped to handle earthquakes — and it’s past time the state did something about it.

Illustration of a student on campus with cracks in the ground and buildings
Alexander Hong/Senior Staff

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The specter of “the big one” has long been on our minds as Californians. But last month’s earthquakes made many of us wonder just how catastrophic “the big one” would be if it arrives in our lifetimes.

California has robust construction standards that make new buildings more likely to withstand a strong earthquake. For years, state lawmakers used to regularly pass general obligation bonds to fund facilities repairs and improvements for the UC and CSU systems since both have campuses that are decades, if not hundreds, of years old.

There’s just one problem: Lawmakers haven’t passed a facilities improvement bond for the UC and CSU systems since 2006.

In recent years, UC and CSU facilities have significantly deteriorated, and their deferred maintenance, new construction and seismic retrofitting needs are astronomical. The UC system has $11.8 billion in unfunded capital needs over the next five years with $6.1 billion related to seismic safety improvement, while the CSU system has $3.7 billion in academic infrastructure and deferred maintenance needs.

Take, for example, the oldest UC campus: UC Berkeley. According to the UC Berkeley chancellor’s office, the campus alone has roughly $3.7 billion in capital needs, including $2 billion for seismic retrofitting and deferred maintenance. Of 276 campus buildings, close to 120 are in fair, poor or very poor condition, according to UC and CSU seismic safety ratings. To make matters worse, the campus is located in an active geological fault zone.

Even at schools with less severe seismic improvement needs, the increasing danger of deferred maintenance — the practice of delaying important repairs, such as fixing HVAC systems, bathrooms and lab infrastructure, due to scarce maintenance funding — complicates daily life for students, staff and faculty.

Simply put, the state’s failure to invest in UC and CSU infrastructure is jeopardizing the safety and quality of life of hundreds of thousands of students, staff and faculty who live and work on these campuses. Especially after this month’s wake-up call, elected officials ought to do something about it.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom and state lawmakers can start by enacting the Higher Education Facilities Bond Act of 2020. If approved by voters on the March 2020 ballot, the act would authorize $8 billion in bond funds to address critical deferred maintenance, new construction and seismic needs at UC and CSU campuses — which would go a long way toward making these campuses safer.

Facilities improvement certainly isn’t among California’s flashiest political issues. But when it comes to “the big one,” it is, quite literally, the brick-and-mortar issue on which students, staff and faculty deserve action.

Varsha Sarveshwar is the University of California Student Association president, ASUC external affairs vice president and a senior at UC Berkeley majoring in political science. Aidan Arasasingham is the University of California Student Association government relations committee chair and a junior at UCLA majoring in global studies. Reach them at [email protected] and [email protected].