UC Berkeley will need to cut its incoming class by 3,050 students next year following a court ruling. File photo: Pete Rosos

The California Supreme Court has turned down UC Berkeley’s request to postpone a drastic cap on enrollment for the fall, meaning that Cal will need to cut its incoming class by 3,050 students next year. This means 5,000 fewer high schoolers will be offered admission this month than the university had hoped.

While UC Berkeley officials said they were “extremely disheartened” by the split ruling, they also said they hope to somewhat bypass the decision by bumping up online offerings and asking some incoming first-year students to delay enrollment to January 2023, which would reduce the numbers on campus at any one time. The university will “prioritize California residents for fall in-person undergraduate enrollment,” according to a statement issued shortly after the California Supreme Court denied UC’s appeal of a lower court ruling that set enrollment at 2020-21 levels of 42,347 students as opposed to the current level of 45,057.

“We are a residential university, and we would like all students to have a full, rich in-person experience starting in the fall when all of their classmates enroll,” UC Berkeley said in the statement. “However, we believe this effort is preferable to drastically reducing the number of offers of admissions and denying so many students a Berkeley education. We have designed this strategy so that if the legislature provides relief very soon, we can pivot to making more in-person offers for the fall.”

Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods, which filed the lawsuit that resulted in the enrollment cap, applauded the ruling and placed the responsibility of the enrollment cap on UC Berkeley, not its lawsuit.

“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,” Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods said in a statement.

“By creating a tremendous housing shortage in Berkeley, the Regents have made it impossible for many students, particularly students from lower-income families, to attend Berkeley and the data show that Pell Grant recipients have fallen from 34% to 26%, with the housing crisis a major contributor to the decline.”

A legislative fix or a settlement?

UC Berkeley is still working with state lawmakers to provide some legislative action that would bypass the enrollment cap, according to its statement. Gov. Gavin Newsom and many state legislators criticized the enrollment cap in recent weeks since it was part of a CEQA lawsuit. They have said they believe that is a misuse of the environmental law.

Sen. Scott Weiner has introduced a bill to exempt on-campus housing from CEQA, but it is unlikely to affect the current court case since it doesn’t apply to the question of enrollment growth. Assemblymember Kevin McCarty, a Democrat from Sacramento, told CalMatters that lawmakers can be nimble and can put together legislation that could help. UC Berkeley has a March 24 deadline to send out admissions offers, and McCarty said lawmakers “don’t need much time to put that together.”

Mayor Jesse Arreguín and other Berkeley officials have denounced the enrollment cap, even though the city had once been party to the lawsuit before reaching its own settlement with UC Berkeley in July. Cal has said the enrollment cap will result in $57 million in lost revenue, and fewer students also will hurt the city’s bottom line, said Arreguín. Cal students spend a lot of money in Berkeley, staff businesses and offer numerous volunteer hours to help community organizations.

Associate Justice Goodwin Liu, who dissented from the court’s decision, urged Cal and Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods to reach a settlement fast so as not to hurt innocent third parties – the students applying to Cal.

“There is no reason why the parties cannot renew efforts to negotiate a settlement, with the aid of a skilled mediator, that would require UC Berkeley to engage in mitigation measures that curb environmental harms associated with its growth, while still protecting the interests of its students and prospective students,” Liu wrote.

Phil Bokovoy, the president of Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods, has previously said the group wants UC Berkeley to agree to tie enrollment to the number of beds it can build and supply, as other UCs do. Chancellor Carol Christ has said in the past that that is not an option.

The order to cap enrollment at the 2020-21 level of 42,347 as opposed to the current enrollment of 45,057 is the result of a lawsuit filed in June 2019 by Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods against UC Berkeley, the Regents of the University of California and others. Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods had sued because it said UC Berkeley had increased its enrollment by more than 30% starting in 2005 but had never examined the environmental impact of that growth. SBN said that since Cal does not provide enough beds, students have found housing in residential neighborhoods, pushing out low-income people, accelerating gentrification, and increasing noise, traffic and trash.

UC Berkeley did examine the impacts of increased enrollment but not as a separate EIR. Instead, it did a supplemental report as part of an EIR for the Upper Hearst Development project, which will add a new building for the Goldman School of Public Policy and adjacent housing for about 225 people. UC Berkeley also focused in the EIR on the impacts of the increased enrollment to the main campus rather than the city.

On Aug. 23, 2021, Alameda County Judge Brad Seligman ordered UC Berkeley to toss out the EIR it did for the Upper Hearst project and start anew. He also ordered the enrollment cap.

UC Berkeley appealed that decision first to the Court of Appeal and then to the California Supreme Court. Both appeals were denied.

The Court of Appeal is scheduled to hear oral arguments on the matter in the coming months. No date has been set yet.

UC Berkeley has not yet started to do a new EIR on the enrollment increases, according to Cal officials.

“This is devastating news for the students who have worked so hard for and have earned an offer of a seat in our fall 2022 class,” Christ said in the statement. “Our fight on behalf of every one of these students continues.”

Correction: A previous version of this story described Associate Justice Joshua Groban as authoring the Supreme Court’s decision. He dissented. Associate Justice Goodwin Liu authored the dissent.

Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...