California Legislature Bails Out UC Berkeley

An enrollment cap brought by an environmental lawsuit put UC Berkeley at risk of losing 400 students. Lawmakers provided a solution Monday that Gov. Newsom quickly signed into law.

March 21, 2022
UC Berkeley is no longer in danger of losing students to a court-ordered enrollment cap this year after the state Legislature intervened.
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After a judge imposed an enrollment cap, the University of California, Berkeley, needed a minor miracle to avoid having to cut its fall 2022 enrollment by 400 students. On Monday it got just that: an immediate reprieve courtesy of the California State Legislature.

Senate Bill 118, which changes how a California environmental law applies to colleges, was passed unanimously Monday by both houses of California’s Legislature—69 to 0 by the Assembly and 33 to 0 by the Senate—despite a handful of objections during public hearings. Governor Gavin Newsom signed the bill into law on Monday night. In passing SB 118, lawmakers emphasized the importance of supporting higher education in the state and rebuked a community group whose lawsuit forced an enrollment cap.

The group, known as Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods, sued UC Berkeley under a state environmental impact law. Initially the university feared it would lose up to 3,050 students, a number it adjusted in light of creative admissions moves that included deferring students and shifting some online. After California’s Supreme Court left a court-ordered enrollment cap intact, lawmakers rode to the rescue Monday, bailing UC Berkeley out as it scrambled to accommodate students deep into admission season.

A Legislative Lifeline

Introduced Friday, SB 118 will change how the California Environmental Quality Act applies to colleges, providing higher education institutions with an 18-month window to certify court-ordered environmental reviews before an enrollment freeze can be ordered by a judge. Additionally, increasing enrollment will not be treated the same way as a building project in terms of evaluating environmental impact.

Another provision will allow colleges to consider the environmental impact of their “campus population” rather than their enrollment, which gives colleges the flexibility to alter staffing levels. That flexibility, in future circumstances, may mean reducing the number of employees physically working on campus, rather than cutting the student body to lower the overall population.

Phil Bokovoy, president of Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods, previously called the legislation “poorly drafted and confusing.” At a Monday hearing, he urged lawmakers not to pass SB 118, arguing that UC Berkeley doesn’t have the capacity to handle additional students on campus.

“Additional students will put more pressure on the local housing market and increase rents for everybody, hitting low-income students and low-income nonstudent families the hardest,” Bokovoy said. “We don’t want students to have to live in cars, campers and hotel rooms like they’ve been doing in Santa Barbara, and more students will result in more crowded classes and stretched student support services, making it hard to graduate in four years. We’d like to see the Legislature instead increase enrollment only after UC has increased housing for their students.”

Expanding Access to Education

Despite voting for a reprieve, lawmakers were also critical of UC Berkeley, with some suggesting the University of California system did not plan properly for long-term development and that university attorneys failed to act in a timely manner, further exacerbating the situation.

Assembly budget chair Phil Ting, who was instrumental in pushing the legislation through, said students “should not pay the price for bad bureaucratic decisions and a very poor lawyer.”

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State Senator Jim Nielsen also criticized the University of California system, accusing it of emphasizing out-of-state students for additional tuition dollars. But ultimately he voted for SB 118 for the sake of students.

Nancy Skinner, who represents Berkeley in the California Senate, noted that the Legislature has worked to increase enrollment in state universities, which this bill will help accomplish.

“Today, the Legislature acted unanimously and passed SB 118, upholding our longstanding priority to provide more students, not fewer, the life-changing benefit of higher education,” Skinner said in a news release. “Students were never intended to be considered pollution. SB 118 ensures that California environmental law does not treat student enrollment differently than the any other activity in our UC, [California State University], or Community College long-range development plans.”

Multiple lawmakers noted the importance of expanding, not reducing, access to education.

After SB 118 sailed through both the Assembly and the Senate, UC Berkeley chancellor Carol Christ expressed her gratitude to lawmakers in an emailed statement. “On behalf of the thousands of students who will benefit from today’s vote, I want to thank California’s legislators for their quick and effective response,” Christ said. “At Berkeley we are, and will remain, committed to continuing our efforts to address a student housing crisis through new construction of below market housing. We look forward to working in close, constructive collaboration with our partners in Sacramento in order to advance our shared interest in providing California students with an exceptional experience and education.”

Bokovoy also provided a statement after the legislation passed, urging Newsom not to sign SB 118 into law and suggesting the “poorly drafted bill” will prompt further legislation.

“While politicians have been saying that CEQA views students as ‘pollutants’ the real issue is that population growth, students or otherwise, causes environmental impacts that need to be analyzed and mitigated,” Bokovoy said by email. “Increased population density—for any development—results in environmental impacts that must be analyzed. This misguided bill gives the UC a unique free pass to avoid analyzing impacts associated with its own enrollment decisions directly impacting population density on campus and in the surrounding communities.”

Berkeley's Next Move

Berkeley will now welcome the 400 students it prepared to lose due to the enrollment cap.

Following Newsom's signature, UC Berkeley announced that it will return to its original enrollment targets. According to spokesperson Dan Mogulof, that means extending admission offers to 15,000-plus incoming freshman in late March and more than 4,500 transfer students in mid-April. 

"The mitigation plans we previously announced and described are no longer needed and will not be implemented," Mogulof said by email. "All offers of admission will be for in-person only, as originally planned."

 

 

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