Berkeley community reacts to CA Supreme Court ruling on enrollment cap

photo of UC Berkeley campus
Owen Mark/Staff
According to ASUC Academic Affairs Vice President James Weichert, due to a reduction in enrollment, the ruling will leave campus with less revenue to support low-income students and students of color.

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The UC Berkeley community reacted with mixed emotions to Thursday’s California Supreme Court ruling limiting campus enrollment — primarily of nonresident students — to 2020-21 numbers.

Due to this ruling, campus will have to reduce fall 2022 in-person enrollment by 2,629 students, a decrease from the previous estimate of 3,050. However, according to campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof, campus will be able to enroll roughly the same number of students as it would have prior to the ruling after factoring in alternative options for new students, including beginning college online.

According to Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods President Phil Bokovoy, the group sued UC Berkeley for neglecting the effects of enrollment increases on Berkeley’s housing crisis. He alleged campus has not upheld its housing and enrollment plans and has instead overenrolled students while also failing to build adequate student housing.

“This is an important equity issue for the community because the enrollment increase has displaced thousands of low-income residents and people of color over the years,” Bokovoy said.

Community voices concerns about gentrification, “unsustainable” enrollment growth

Concerned about whether other university towns will follow suit, Berkeley housing and transportation activist Darrell Owens called this court ruling a “disaster for public education.” Though Owens said he believes the enrollment cap will not significantly address affordability issues, he emphasized that UC Berkeley should prioritize building more housing and classrooms.

“(Campus has) enough money to conduct an (Environmental Impact Report) even if I don’t think students should be viewed as pollution,” Owens said in an email. “Southside actually has the lowest carbon emissions per household in the city according to Cool Climate Network research from UC Berkeley.”

For ASUC Senator Amanda Hill, the court ruling invokes “very mixed feelings.”

While they do not necessarily agree with Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods’ motivations or the decision to revert enrollment numbers to 2020 levels, they said they agree with the sentiment that campus expansion is “extremely unsustainable.”

“Berkeley promised to only enroll a certain number of students back in 2001 — a commitment which they did not keep,” Hill said.

Hill noted Berkeley’s rent rates have risen faster than rents in Los Angeles and San Francisco in the past ten years, and gentrification has pushed Southside’s Black population out of the city.

Aside from housing, Hill said overenrollment also means campus does not have enough resources to sustain its student population.

“More students are moving to Oakland and surrounding areas,” Hill said. “Students also experience long wait times getting advising appointments in L&S.”

“The great equalizer”: Campus diversity and resources in question

The ruling will leave campus with fewer resources to support low-income students and students of color due to a reduction in revenue caused by enrolling fewer students, according to ASUC Academic Affairs Vice President James Weichert.

Weichert said students should be campus’s number one priority, not city residents.

“Our mission is to be the great equalizer,” Weichert said. “We’ll see in the coming months what the new first-year and transfer class looks like, but it’s not a good look.”

Campus plans to enroll more than 1,000 incoming freshmen to be fully remote for their first semester, while 650 students, primarily transfers, will be enrolled beginning January 2023.

Out of the new undergraduates enrolled in-person in fall 2022, 91% will be California residents and only 9% will be nonresidents, minimizing the ruling’s impact on California high school students. This number meets the 10% cap on out-of-state students campus targeted for in-person enrollment in the fall.

“The numbers are a concern, especially as a nonresident myself, and speaks to what the perception will be more broadly beyond the state,” Weichert said. “The UC system is more and more an exclusive system for Californians and no one else.”

Despite concerns about the effect the enrollment freeze will have on the diversity of the student body, Bokovoy and Hill were both skeptical of the validity of this argument.

Bokovoy cited UC Berkeley’s drop in the percentage of Pell Grant recipients, from 34% to 26%, as evidence that the current lack of affordability is driving out low-income students as well.

Hill echoed these sentiments, saying that because UC Berkeley cannot consider race on applications, diversity has only risen because of an increase in minority applicants.

“The Black and Latinx communities did not ask for more enrollment numbers,” Hill said. “We asked for more diversity measures.”

To protect the most critical student services, Weichert hopes to focus on mitigating the budgetary and academic impacts of the enrollment freeze.

Next steps: Addressing the housing shortage and seeking legislative relief

Hill said one solution to the housing shortage could be for campus to build housing on land it already owns.

They mentioned UC Berkeley owns 8,000 acres of land, in addition to the 1,000-acre main campus, which could be used to build housing. However, according to Hill, campus plans to build warehouses and recreational sports facilities instead.

“It’s an uncontroversial location compared to historical landmarks, but (campus) refuses to build there,” Hill said.

Meanwhile, Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods is “split” on some of UC Berkeley’s more controversial development plans, including the proposal to build over People’s Park.

Bokovoy noted the group has supported the construction of campus-owned housing, including the Blackwell Hall project — a claim Mogulof disputes.

“Not only have they sued over every housing project we have tried to start, but they have sued to reduce the number of students in existing residence halls on the Clark Kerr campus,” Mogulof said. “I have no idea how anyone can square that litigation with what they are claiming in the enrollment case.”

Campus is currently engaged with state leaders to identify possible legislative solutions to minimize the impacts of the court ruling, according to Mogulof.

The ASUC hopes to tackle the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, which was used against campus in the lawsuit.

Though the ASUC plans to oppose the court ruling, Hill disagrees with the ASUC’s plan. They said they worry exempting campus from the CEQA on housing will eliminate the “only actual check” that prevents UC Berkeley from building “wherever they want.”

“We shouldn’t prioritize students over local neighborhoods,” Hill said.

Weichert, however, said he worries this ruling will set a precedent for neighborhood groups to file a CEQA lawsuit on the basis of “students being pollution” rather than physical construction projects.

Furthermore, Weichert said CEQA will complicate efforts to build more student housing.

“That’s why a lot of folks see this ruling as a devastating blow,” Weichert said. “We are committed to fighting this and moving onto legislation because this is an issue that needs to be fixed.”

Contact Aileen Wu at [email protected], and follow them on Twitter at @aileenwu_.