The University of California, Berkeley may have to slash its new admissions by about one-third after a neighborhood group in the hilly Bay Area city challenged the environmental impact of the top college’s expansion plan.
The university is asking California’s supreme court to intervene after the local group, called Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods, successfully argued the university was violating a major environmental law by failing to account for increases in the trash, traffic and noise that increased enrollment and new construction would bring.
As a result, the university will have to send out 5,100 fewer admission letters than planned next month, and forgo $57m in tuition fees over the 2022-23 academic year.
The case sits at the intersection of several big debates roiling California at the moment: how to reduce educational inequities and rein in increasingly unaffordable tuition fees? How to address a housing crisis even as nimby homeowners seek to stifle new development?
At the center of the UC Berkeley case is the state’s environmental law – the California Environmental Quality Act – which critics say is being brazenly used by neighborhood groups to block necessary housing and infrastructure using the pretense of environmentalism. It has also raised the alarm that amid unprecedented demand for higher education in California, thousands of students will miss their chance at a degree from one of the top US universities.
The construction project near campus that triggered Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods’ challenge would replace an existing parking structure with accommodation for 30 graduate students, and classroom space for the university’s public policy program.
In its environmental impact study for the new construction, the university argued increased enrollment previous years had “no significant environmental impacts”. UC Berkeley has also said that it should be able to address the concerns raised in the lawsuit without having to limit enrollment in the meantime.
But in August, a county judge disagreed. “Further increases in student enrollment above the current enrollment level at UCBerkeley could result in an adverse change or alteration of the physical environment,” superior court judge Brad Seligman wrote, ordering the school to freeze enrollment at the same level as 2020-21.
The court’s assessment essentially concluded that crowded classrooms full of college students posed an environmental threat akin to a highly-polluting highway project, said Jennifer Hernandez, an attorney who often defends developers from CEQA litigation.
Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods has stated that the university, which has increased its enrollment from 31,800 in 2005 to 43,100 last year, has failed to provide adequate housing for students. The group argues students have pushed into the city and impacted housing prices and homelessness in surrounding communities. It has further suggested that the university adjust admissions to let in fewer students from other states and other countries – who pay higher tuition fees than California residents – to admit more locals.
“UC Berkeley students themselves have repeatedly said that UC should stop increasing enrollment until it can provide housing for its students,” said Phil Bokovoy, president of Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods. “We are all very concerned that UC Berkeley will create a housing crisis next fall.”
But critics of the group have countered that while the university should do more to house students – many of whom struggle to find apartments and afford rents in one of the most expensive California regions – Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods shouldn’t be blocking the development of new housing in making that point. Bokovoy, who is a graduate of UC Berkeley himself, has suggested that the university expand elsewhere in the Bay Area.
The university has not yet detailed how it would decide which offers to rescind if the freeze were to go ahead. But it has said the losses in tuition revenue would reduce the university’s capacity to offer financial aid to low-income students and could limit class offerings.
Because many graduate students have already received their admissions letters and because of the number of new admits the university would have to cut down, undergraduate students are expected to be most affected.
Riya Master, a senior at UC Berkeley and the external affairs vice-president for Associated Students of the University of California, a student association, said she worried that lower-income, first-generation and minority students who might have had fewer extra-curricular activities listed on their applications due to the opportunities that were available to them would be disproportionately affected.
Environmental law is “not being used with the intention of protecting the environment. It’s being used to limit access, it’s being used to keep the neighborhood the way an older, primarily white generation wants it to be”, Master said.
In a letter to prospective students, Olufemi Ogundele, director of undergraduate admissions, wrote: “This is unsettling news, we know” and reassured students that the university is working to avoid a reduction in new admits.
The freeze on admissions would come as the demand for seats in the University of California system continues to rise. Applications to the UC schools have soared, especially since the state university system phased out a requirement to submit standardized entrance exam scores. Applications to the schools were also up among Black and Latino Californians. The number of students who took semesters off due to Covid-19 seeking to return to campus this fall will further squeeze the university’s ability to admit new students, UC Berkeley said.
“This is a disaster for the university, and this is a disaster for students,” said Ozan Jaquette, an assistant professor of higher education at the University of California, Los Angeles. “It’s the meanest thing I’ve ever heard.”
For many students, a degree from a highly-regarded public institution is a “big massive engine of social mobility”, he noted, adding that there would not be a way that Berkeley could feasibly reduce admissions to the extent currently required without it affecting students from all backgrounds.
“Trying to use CEQA as a population control statute is a real slippery slope,” said Hernandez, the attorney.
The CEQA, a landmark law initially signed into law in 1970 by then-governor Ronald Regan, has recently been at the center of several high-profile court cases challenging developments. The state’s attorney general has intervened in some cases that use CEQA to challenge new construction in fire-prone wildlands.
But the state’s strict environmental laws are also used to challenge in-fill construction in cities, including affordable housing. Over the past several years, CEQA has been used to delay or block the development of affordable apartments for disabled veterans in Los Angeles and a 500-unit building in housing-crunched San Francisco. Recently, the wealthy Bay Area town of Woodside tried to use the state’s endangered species law to block the construction of new duplexes.
The law can be exploited by people who want, rather than protect California from the effects of climate change and pollution, to preserve “their own personal environment, as they experience it, outside their window when they want to take a quiet nap in the afternoon”, she said.