Legislative fix could let UC Berkeley admit more students

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 bill, introduced simultaneously in the Assembly and Senate budget committees, is on a fast track and could be passed as early as Monday, which would allow Cal to send out as many offers of admissions as it likes by its March 24 deadline.

State Senator Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, who chairs the Senate budget committee, said the legislation, which she helped craft, would correct a terrible wrong.

"Jeopardizing the future of more than 2,600 students who earned a place at Cal is contrary to California’s longstanding priority to give more students, not fewer, the opportunity to benefit from our public universities and colleges," said Skinner. "It was never the intent of the Legislature for students to be viewed as environmental pollutants."

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 review future 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.

KTVU contributed to this report.