SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — An uncommonly divided California Supreme Court said Thursday it won’t stay a lower court’s order requiring the University of California, Berkeley, to freeze student enrollment and halt construction on a $126 million expansion that proposes to turn a campus-adjacent parking structure into additional classrooms and faculty housing.
The court's 4-2 decision, issued in a one sentence ruling, means UC Berkley must freeze its enrollment at 42,347, and that 3,050 students won’t be able to attend the university next year. “This is devastating news for the thousands of students who have worked so hard for and have earned a seat in our fall 2022 class,” university spokesman Dan Mogulof said in an email.
“Our fight on behalf of every one of these students continues,” he added, saying the university will look to the state lawmakers and other leaders "to identify possible legislative solutions.”
The ruling favors a group of Berkeley residents trying to keep the university’s expansion at bay. Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods sued to block the project in 2018, claiming the campus failed to assess the environmental hazards of construction noise and traffic on the surrounding community, as well as the effect more students will have on housing and homelessness in the area.
In 2021, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Brad Seligman ordered the university to pause construction and freeze enrollment. The UC Regents appealed the ruling, which is still pending in the First Appellate District, but also asked the high court to lift the freeze.
California’s attorney general sent the court a letter in February on behalf of Governor Gavin Newsom, imploring the justices to consider the request. “The impact of restricting admission to UC Berkeley could forever change the lives of over 5,000 students, especially students from disadvantaged backgrounds," Attorney General Rob Bonta wrote. "UC Berkeley provides an unmatched opportunity for low-income students, students from diverse backgrounds, and transfer students to access a high-quality education at a prestigious university at public- school tuition rates.”
In a rare dissent, Justice Goodwin Liu seemed dismayed by the majority’s decision not to intervene.
“As things stand today, approximately 3,050 students may lose the opportunity to attend one of our state's premier universities this fall,” he wrote. "In addition to the acute loss to each of these prospective students, the city of Berkeley would also be denied the social and economic benefits of accommodating a full student population, while the university's potential loss of $57 million in tuition would undermine California's interests in expanding access to education.”
He continued: “Even for the new students who are fortunate enough to enroll this fall, the overall reduction will likely mean reduced resources, emptier classrooms, and a relatively anemic class of peers. For these students, their quality of education will be fundamentally altered. Furthermore, California and our broader society stand to lose the contributions of leadership, innovation, and service that would otherwise accrue if several thousand students did not have to defer or forgo the benefit of a UC Berkeley education this fall.”
Liu said the petition “presents significant questions regarding whether and how courts should account for harm to third parties when exercising their discretion to grant a temporary stay of a trial court injunction pending appeal.”
Given that UC Berkeley has exceeded its projected enrollment figure every year for 15 years, Liu said it would be hard to imagine how the harm inflicted on the neighborhood by staying the freeze another year outweighs the harm to the university and its students if it is kept in place.
In the meantime, Mogulof said UC Berkeley is trying to mitigate the freeze by increasing online enrollment and asking incoming students to delay enrollment until January 2023.
“While these strategies will enable UC Berkeley to make available as many enrollment seats as we can, the lower court order leaves us with options that are far from ideal,” he said. “We will also prioritize California residents for fall in-person undergraduate enrollment, as well as our commitment to transfer students.”
Liu, who was joined by Justice Joshua Groban, said the UC Regents could ask the First Appellate District for another stay, though it has already refused to grant one. Liu also proposed that it work out a settlement with the neighborhood opponents.
"Indeed, given the stakes on all sides, it is hard to think of a case where a negotiated settlement seems more imperative for the good of the local community and our state,” he wrote.
In a video press conference following the court’s decision, Phil Bokovoy, the neighborhood group’s president, said the group agrees with Liu, but its offers to settle the case with the university have so far been rebuffed.
“What we want is a binding agreement where the university has an incentive to produce housing before it can increase enrollment,” he said.
He said three other campuses — UC Santa Cruz, UC Santa Barbara, and UC Davis -- have all agreed to something similar.
"What I hear from students is that it's really, really hard to get housing in Berkeley. Low income students don't have the resources to compete in the housing market in Berkeley, and Berkeley only guarantees housing for the first year,” Bokovoy said.
"We saw it happen in Santa Barbara last fall where the university was housing hundreds of students in hotels, students were living in their cars, and some were commuting from their homes in Los Angeles. We just don't want that kind of impact on our community. I really think the university's claim that this is going to impact low income students disproportionately is really a problem they've already made."
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