Depending on what happens at the California Supreme Court, 3,050 fewer students might get acceptance letters from UC Berkeley this spring, because a Berkeley citizens' group is irritated with the pace of the school's growth.

The court is taking up the case Wednesday, after the group called Save Berkeley Neighborhoods sued the University of California Regents back in 2019 over its growth plan for the school, which called for a 33.7% increase in the size of the student body between 2005 and 2020. At issue, primarily, is the fact that UC Berkeley only has housing space for around 10,000 students, but its undergraduate classes enroll around 32,000 students, which means many have to seek housing off-campus. Save Berkeley Neighborhoods says that this drives up rents in the city, consequently displacing other residents, increasing homelessness. And, they say, the larger student body puts too much strain on city services.

Some of the roots of this conflict date back to the Great Recession, as Berkeleyside explains, when the state slashed funding for the UC system. UC Berkeley responded by increasing its enrollment of out-of-state students, who pay three times as much tuition. The most prestigious of the UC schools, Berkeley, UCLA, and UCSD, now enroll many thousands more out-of-state students than they did in decades past — between a fifth and a quarter of the student population at those three schools now comes from out of state. (An audit in 2016 also found that UC Berkeley lowers its admissions standards for out-of-state students.)

The suit from Save Berkeley Neighborhoods resulted in an Alameda County judge ruling last year that UC Berkeley must cap its enrollment at 2020-2021 levels until it redoes an environmental impact report on a housing complex it plans to build. The school appealed the ruling, the Court of Appeals upheld the lower court's ruling and now the appeal has gone to the state Supreme Court.

As the New York Times reported, the school sent an email last Monday to all applicants for the incoming first-year class informing them of the appeals court decision, saying that it may have 3,050 fewer spaces in the class to offer, and that it stands to lose $57 million in revenue as a result.

"This court-mandated decrease in enrollment would be a tragic outcome for thousands of students who have worked incredibly hard to gain admission to Berkeley," the school's message said.

The school also argued in its appeal this week that freezing enrollment "would have a catastrophic impact on U.C. Berkeley’s ability to admit low-income, underrepresented students."

Governor Gavin Newsom filed an amicus brief in the case, requesting that the state's high court stay the earlier decision, which would allow the school to admit more students for the incoming class. The final round of acceptance letters goes out March 24.

"We can’t let a lawsuit get in the way of the education and dreams of thousands of students who are our future leaders and innovators," said Newsom in a statement. “I urge the Supreme Court to step in to ensure we are expanding access to higher education and opportunity, not blocking it.”

But Save Berkeley Neighborhoods contends that the university's growth comes at the expense of the community in which it lives — and like neighborhood groups around the Bay Area have done numerous times to battle projects they don't like, they have employed the state's environmental law, CEQA, as its justification.

One housing advocacy group called East Bay for Everyone recently called out the use of CEQA in this and other cases, saying, "CEQA is a law that historically was intended to protect the environment, but more recently, it has been used to block construction of all types, including bike lanes, public transit, and affordable housing. In fact, 64% of petitioners filing CEQA lawsuits are either individuals or local 'associations' that often have no prior track record of environmental advocacy."

Phil Bokovoy, president of Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods, has spoken out frequently on behalf of the group, saying that the University of California has been rampant in its abuses around the state in "forcing its impact on communities and not doing anything about it."

UC Berkeley is doing battle on multiple fronts, though — it's also trying to build new housing, and the City of Berkeley and some residents have pushed back on those plans, including a plan to build on the land that for 50 years has been known as People's Park.

But the City of Berkeley is actually on Cal's side right now. As Berkeleyside reported, the city council voted unanimously last week to file an amicus brief on behalf of the university, in favor of lifting the enrollment cap.

Berkeley mayor Jesse Arreguín said in a statement, "The campus will need to grow because the state is growing. The question is how will they grow and how will we work with them to grow, how we will shape that growth? I do think there needs to be checks and balances on development. While the university needs to be a good neighbor, I think, in this ruling, the court used a hammer instead of a scalpel."

Photo: Jeremy Huang