By MADISON HIRNEISEN
THE CENTER SQUARE
(The Center Square) – The California State Legislature fast-tracked a bill to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk on Monday that would allow the University of California, Berkeley to admit thousands more students for the fall semester despite a court-ordered enrollment freeze.
Lawmakers in both chambers of the Legislature voted unanimously on Monday to advance Senate Bill 118, which would give public colleges and universities 18 months to remedy environmental review issues under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) before a court-ordered enrollment freeze could take effect. The bill also states that changes in enrollment on their own do not require a CEQA review.
The bill takes effect immediately and is applied retroactively, meaning that UC Berkeley can offer admission to as many students as it had initially planned to enroll before a court-ordered enrollment cap.
“I’m grateful to the Legislature for moving quickly on this critical issue – it sends a clear signal that California won’t let lawsuits get in the way of the education and dreams of thousands of students, our future leaders and innovators,” said Gov. Newsom.
University officials announced last month that it would have to reject about 5,000 applications to comply with a court ruling from an Alameda County Superior Court judge requiring Berkeley to cut enrollment by about 3,000 students. The university has since lowered the number of applicants it would have to reject to around 2,600 students, according to the Associated Press.
The judge ruled in August that the university must cap enrollment at 2020-2021 levels. The ruling stemmed from a lawsuit filed by Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods, who claimed that the university has failed to consider the impact of increased enrollment on housing and noise as required under CEQA.
The California Supreme Court declined a request from the university to block the lower court decision in a ruling earlier this month, which required UC Berkeley to comply with the enrollment freeze.
The high court’s decision shocked state lawmakers, who moved quickly to draft SB 118 to ensure students would not miss out on the opportunity to attend UC Berkeley over a CEQA lawsuit.
“Five thousand students shouldn’t have to pay the price for misguided NIMBYism (Not In My Backyard), and that’s what this lawsuit was about,” Assemblymember Buffy Wicks, D-Oakland, said ahead of Monday’s vote.
Phil Bokovoy, president of Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods, issued a statement shortly after Monday’s vote urging Gov. Newsom not to sign SB 118 into law, claiming it is “poorly drafted and confusing” and will not help students.
“We hope that Governor Newsom recognizes that SB118 will hurt students more than help and not sign this bill,” Mr. Bokovoy said. “UC Berkeley does not have the capacity to handle more students, and more than 10% of current Berkeley students suffer homelessness during their education. In addition, more than 15% suffer from food insecurity. We don’t want new students to have to live in cars, campers and hotel rooms like they are in Santa Barbara.”
He added that the bill “gives the UC a unique free pass to avoid analyzing impacts associated with its own enrollment decisions directly impacting population density on campus and in the surrounding communities.”
Lawmakers, however, said Monday that the bill would ensure that deserving students are admitted to universities across the state while also upholding existing environmental review requirements under CEQA.
“We act because we have seen recently the misguided application of an environmental law to student enrollment,” Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said Monday. “The actual environmental impact is not from how many students we let in; it is a result of the total campus population and how that affects environmental quality.
“The UC administration must act today and in the future to plan appropriately for the impacts associated with the campus population. Universities remain covered by CEQA, and they should be.”