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San Francisco, college town? It can become one by uplifting one university that’s already here

Expanding UCSF into a full university with law, science and engineering programs would attract talent and boost SF’s economy, Evan Zimmerman says

An illustrated graduation cap hovers over a stylized school with a bridge in the background.
AI illustration by Jesse Rogala/The Standard

By Evan Zimmerman

San Francisco has been many things throughout its history, but it’s never been known as a college town. Now the city has an opportunity to make it happen. 

Last May, Mayor London Breed asked the University of California Regents to consider opening a San Francisco campus to help support San Francisco’s flagging downtown. It’s a great idea, and the UC Regents look like they might answer Breed’s prayers. UC’s plans are still up in the air, but the current proposals are unambitious tinkering. What San Francisco needs, and deserves, is a whole new university.

The solution is staring us in the face: UCSF, which today focuses only on graduate-level medicine and biology, can quickly become the MIT of the West if it becomes a full university. UCSF is already the second-largest public employer in the Bay Area and home to seven Nobel Prize winners. UC could build on its successful brand instead of risking it all on a brand-new venture. It is the only way to achieve Breed’s goal of 30,000 new downtown residents, and it would be much faster than starting from scratch. It is the only viable approach.

Grafting new schools onto existing, successful schools works; starting from nothing doesn’t. Take UC Irvine Law School. When UC decided to create the first new major law school in more than 40 years, officials did not create a stand-alone school. Instead, they recruited the esteemed Erwin Chemerinsky to launch it and placed it in an already high-performing campus. He got it operating in less than two years, and it was ranked #28 in the country when he left. 

Compare that with the creation of UC Merced. The decision to start a new UC was made decades ago, but the 1988 resolution did not turn into a university open for business until 2006. Worse, it wasn’t worth the wait. UC Merced is the least prestigious UC campus and has the lowest enrollment.

By starting with a system that’s already working, the new UCSF would have a head start. It’s already a powerhouse in biotech. The question would be what to do next and how to do it quickly.

The first obvious act would be to merge with the UC Law School SF, which would become UCSF Law. It is a California law and policy success story despite being perhaps the only prestigious law school in the country that is not connected to a major university. Adding it to the UCSF portfolio would be mutually beneficial, helping to scale the new UCSF without the effort of creating a new school while providing additional resources (and a better name) to the new UCSF Law. 

With that strong base, the clear next step for an enlarged UCSF would be expanding its graduate science programs. It is both the closest to what UCSF does now and the path of least resistance to state funding. Most importantly, UCSF’s biology chops would lend it the credibility to recruit talent and instantly lead in other fields: quantum computing, aerospace, artificial intelligence, semiconductors and more. UCSF would be building on its base instead of chasing undergraduate humanities that are not its core competency (but are the province of Berkeley and Stanford).

A science- and engineering-focused undergraduate program would be new for UCSF, which is why it should come second. To stand out, UCSF would need a strong differentiator beyond merely relying on its prestigious brand. Here is one clear way: UCSF can provide the most competitive co-op program in the world, embedding students in workplaces while they’re still in school. Because UCSF is in the world mecca of high technology, it can design programs with top companies, as is done in Asia, where companies like TSMC and Samsung work with local universities to design coursework, and place students in envy-worthy jobs like the legendary University of Waterloo program in Canada. Imagine producing elite graduates with practical experience while also creating working-class jobs that support the local manufacturing sector.

A new university would bring a lot of benefits to San Francisco. Colleges are inherently in-person and add a level of stability, regardless of the future of work-from-home. There is no talk of a doom loop in Berkeley or Palo Alto. Furthermore, universities have a network effect: Harvard and MIT gave Boston the Broad Institute and Watertown. Imagine the cluster of UC Berkeley, a newly full UCSF and Stanford. It would be unbeatable. 

Although this wouldn’t be cheap, it is the cheapest option. UC Irvine Law started with a $20 million donation; UC Merced spent many times that. By starting with UCSF, UC can build off existing physical and intellectual infrastructure and acquire empty buildings downtown. What’s more, big costs matter less if you can attract big dollars, and UCSF has no difficulty attracting huge donations thanks to its successful brand and illustrious alumni. Plus, by focusing on science and engineering, UCSF can partially fund its expansion with grants from institutions like the National Science Foundation and the Department of Defense.

The alternatives are non-starters. According to UC Law SF’s David Faigman (wouldn’t that sound better as “UCSF Law’s David Faigman”?), opening a totally de novo university in five years would be “heroic” and doing it in less than a decade would be “surprising.” Way too slow. 

The other main proposals involve merely creating housing for other universities. Although those ideas would be fast, they would merely bring hundreds of students, not the tens of thousands San Francisco needs. Plus, Berkeley is across the bay and Stanford is about 45 minutes away, making mere housing unappealing to students.

Those limited ideas ignore the fact that San Francisco is a global city that deserves a flagship university. Instead of reinventing the wheel, let’s just scale up what we already have for the future it is destined to fulfill: Creating one of the greatest universities on Earth.

Evan Zimmerman is based in the Bay Area and the founder of Edge, a Y Combinator-backed startup that uses AI to help patent practitioners write patents.

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