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UC Berkeley must reduce enrollment by 3,050 students after a neighborhood group sued on environmental grounds.

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California’s Supreme Court will not take up a case between the University of California, Berkeley, and a local community group, meaning Berkeley will need to shrink its student body by 3,050.

The California Supreme Court announced Wednesday that it will not review the case, denying the University of California’s appeal to overturn a lower court ruling that forced an enrollment cap.

At the heart of the matter is a legal battle between UC Berkeley and Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods, a community group that successfully sued the university over its expansion plans, invoking the California Environmental Quality Act. In that case, an Alameda County Superior Court judge ordered Berkeley to reduce its head count by 3,050 students.

Deep into admissions season, Berkeley previously said it will send out at least 5,100 fewer offers of admission, citing yield rates, in order to meet the ordered enrollment cap.

After the order to freeze enrollment at Berkeley was handed down in August, the University of California Board of Regents appealed the decision and asked the court to stay the order as the appellate process—and admissions season—played out. That request was denied in mid-February, prompting regents to seek relief from California’s Supreme Court. Now, with the Supreme Court declining to hear the case, Berkeley is looking at a looming enrollment cap.

Reactions to the Ruling

“We are extremely disheartened by today’s ruling by the Supreme Court of California, which leaves intact a lower court order that will reduce and then freeze enrollment at 2020–2021 levels and prevent thousands of students who would have been offered in-person admission to the University of California, Berkeley, this fall from receiving that offer,” UC Berkeley spokesperson Dan Mogulof wrote in a statement. “This is devastating news for the thousands of students who have worked so hard for and have earned a seat in our fall 2022 class. Our fight on behalf of every one of these students continues.”

Mogulof added that the university continues to seek relief from lawmakers and has “engaged with state leaders to identify possible legislative solutions that could address the significant impacts of the lower court’s ruling on enrollment decisions at UC Berkeley and other campuses.”

The statement goes on to say that the university will consider other ways to enroll students, such as increasing online enrollment and/or asking incoming students to delay enrolling until January 2023. Berkeley will prioritize California residents and transfer students for in-person enrollment. The university told the Los Angeles Times that such strategies could possibly mitigate its enrollment loss, leading it to cut only a few hundred seats rather than the 3,050 ordered by the court. Berkeley did not provide additional details to Inside Higher Ed.

Phil Bokovoy, president of Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods, also released an emailed statement Thursday.

“While we are pleased that the Supreme Court has upheld the trial court’s imposition of a temporary pause on enrollment growth pending UC’s compliance with completing an adequate environmental analysis of enrollment growth, we’d like to assure deserving California high school students that we are as disappointed as they are that UC has tried to use them as pawns in UC’s attempts to avoid mitigating the impacts from the massive enrollment increases over the past few years,” he said.

The statement goes on to accuse the regents of “creating a tremendous housing shortage in Berkeley,” which has “made it impossible for many students,” especially those from low-income families, to attend UC Berkeley. Additionally, the group noted it has offered to settle “in exchange for UC Berkeley’s agreement to a legally binding commitment to increase housing before they increase enrollment,” adding that university leadership has rebuffed such agreements.

Bokovoy doubled down on those remarks in a Thursday afternoon press conference, urging UC Berkeley leadership to build more housing units for students prior to increasing enrollment. Bokovoy cited the displacement of low-income city of Berkeley residents as a negative effect of increased enrollment and called for the university to add more beds to mitigate local housing issues.

“At this point, we just don’t trust the university when they say they’re going to build housing,” Bokovoy said.

Unpacking the Ruling

Thursday’s ruling came down as a 5-to-2 decision. The dissenters seemed to urge the parties to consider a negotiated settlement, noting the high stakes for the state of California, the city and UC Berkeley.

“In addition to the acute loss to each of these prospective students, the City of Berkeley would also be denied the social and economic benefits of accommodating a full student population, while the university’s potential loss of $57 million in tuition would undermine California’s interests in expanding access to education,” Justice Goodwin Liu wrote in a dissenting opinion. “This is not even to mention the contributions of leadership, innovation, and service that our state and broader society may lose if thousands of students have to defer or forgo attending UC Berkeley this fall. Even if those students enroll elsewhere, the reshuffling will cause other displacements, and the effects of the enrollment cap will reverberate up and down the state.”

Peter Lake, the Charles A. Dana Chair and director of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy at Stetson University College of Law, said the issue at hand is unique.

“I haven’t seen anything quite like this in higher ed before,” Lake said.

The dissent, Lake suggested, urges parties to reach a settlement. “It basically says, ‘Come on, find a way to work this out; neither of you really have an interest in a zero-sum outcome.’”

While legal and legislative solutions are still at hand, Lake wonders how this issue might pop up elsewhere with other community groups following the lead of Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods.

“I think this will be a case study—whatever happens—on the impact of community development and the evolution of higher education enrollment, particularly with rents and housing opportunities becoming problematic in a lot of communities,” Lake said. “I don’t think this issue is going to be as isolated as people think it is. This could start popping up all over the country in high-density zones where real estate prices and rents have gone through the roof and crowding is starting to occur. This is a huge issue with tremendous implications.”

As the late-March deadline for UC Berkeley admissions offers looms, some California politicians are pushing to exempt universities from the California Environmental Quality Act, which is the law that Berkeley was sued for violating.

State Senator Scott Weiner introduced a new bill in late February to exempt housing developments at public universities from an environmental review process, a move that could prevent future lawsuits like the one that led to the enrollment cap at Berkeley.

“It’s tragic that California allows courts & environmental laws to determine how many students UC is allowed to educate,” Weiner tweeted Thursday. “This ruling directly harms thousands of young people. We must never allow this to happen again. We must change the law. And we will.”

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