Democratic lawmakers have agreed to legislation that could let the University of California, Berkeley accept thousands more students this fall after a judicial freeze on enrollment in a dispute with residents over growth.
The decision by California's high court last week to cap enrollment at one of the world's most prestigious universities stunned state lawmakers, who said it wasn't fair to students who had worked hard to get into UC Berkeley.
The proposal introduced Friday by Assemblymember Phil Ting, a San Francisco Democrat, would give public universities more time and flexibility to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act before judges can resort to imposing caps on student enrollment.
It also highlighted how California residents have used a landmark state environmental law to halt the construction of badly needed housing and in this case, dictate university admissions policies.
The proposal would be retroactive and if approved, make unenforceable all judgments affecting enrollment — allowing UC Berkeley to admit the number of students officials had planned to for 2022 instead of forcing a reduction in the size of the freshman class.
“To be able to get into University of California, Berkeley is a huge accomplishment for any student,” said Ting, who is an alumnus.
Because of the court decision, university officials said they would need to reject 5,000 applicants this spring to reduce enrollment by 3,000 students to maintain overall enrollment at 2020-21 levels. They have since lowered the figure to about 2,600.
University officials had pleaded with lawmakers for an emergency fix, saying the university needs the tuition revenue and that students should be able to have a vibrant on-campus college experience.
The California Environmental Quality Act requires government to evaluate and disclose the significant environmental effects of building projects and to find ways to lessen those effects.
It is aimed at protecting the environment, but has been weaponized in recent years throughout California to slow or stop development projects, including new housing and transportation. California communities are rife with people who say there needs to be more housing for low-wage earners, college students and the homeless, but they want those homes built elsewhere.
The state Supreme Court in a 4-2 decision declined the university's emergency request to lift an enrollment cap ordered last year by an Alameda County Superior Court judge.
Alameda County Judge Brad Seligman sided with Berkeley residents who argued that UC Berkeley had failed to examine the impact of its growth on noise, safety and housing as required under the environmental law.
He ordered the university to cap student enrollment at its 2020-21 level of just over 42,000 students and to suspend construction of a proposed faculty housing and classroom project.
The university is still appealing the entire case but that process could take months or longer — which is why state lawmakers stepped in to try to allow UC Berkeley to admit the number of students it had planned to accept.
California Sen. Scott Wiener, another San Francisco Democrat, has also introduced legislation to exempt from environmental reviewfuture on-campus housing projects for faculty and students at the state's three public higher education systems.
Democrats control both chambers of the Legislature, and the leaders of the Senate and Assembly issued statements Friday in support of the proposal. A committee hearing is scheduled for Monday.
Alex Stack, a spokesperson for Gov. Gavin Newsom's office, said the governor appreciates the agreement protecting access to colleges, “which is essential to California’s higher education vision and critical for our workforce and economy.”
Newsom, a Democrat, had urged the state Supreme Court to block the enrollment cap.