Scrambling to short-circuit a court-ordered enrollment freeze at the University of California, Berkeley, state legislators on Friday unveiled a proposed change to a landmark environmental law that would let the university admit students at its previously planned level despite a lawsuit charging that its growth is polluting the city.
“If this passes and is signed, it will allow Berkeley to go forward with full planned enrollment and no reduction,” said Phil Ting, who is the chair of the Assembly budget committee and helped craft the proposed legislation.
In an order that the California Supreme Court let stand this month, the university had been instructed to limit the number of students it admits after a neighborhood group filed a lawsuit seeking to slow growth on campus by leveraging the California Environmental Quality Act.
The university had previously said it would have to enroll 2,629 fewer students than it had planned to in order to meet the cap of 42,347 students who were enrolled in 2020-21.
The reprieve, which legislators hope to pass quickly, would affect only a small portion of the act that deals with the environmental impact reports required as part of long-range development plans at public universities in California. It would give higher education leaders 18 months to remedy deficiencies when the courts determine that a campus population exceeds projections, and would ensure that any remedy being sought now would not apply to current enrollment. It also would allow them to adjust the number of faculty and staff members on campus, rather than just the number of students.
Legal challenges have arisen because of longstanding legislative pressure to make room at public universities for more California students despite an acute shortage of housing. Demand for admission to the highly ranked University of California system is intense and economic projections indicate that the supply of highly skilled workers is far short of the level the state needs.
The University of California system has on-campus beds for about 106,000 students, leaving roughly two out of three students to compete for off-campus housing in some of the nation’s most expensive housing markets. Over the past decade, the state has added a little over three times as many people as housing units, driving its median home price, at $800,000, to more than twice the national figure.
Mr. Ting said lawmakers were also pushing for a $5 billion fund to underwrite campus housing.
“We all know how hard students work to get into college, and U.C. Berkeley is a huge accomplishment for any student — the time they spend to achieve that is a lifetime worth of work,” he said. “This was really our responsibility.”
A Berkeley campus spokeswoman, Janet Gilmore, said the proposal will help ensure that students “aren’t harmed because of uncertainty around current policy.”
The legal furor at Berkeley has highlighted tensions throughout the 10-campus University of California system, which guarantees spots for the top 12.5 percent of high school graduates in the state.
The system’s enrollment, which now stands at about 300,000, has grown by more than 63,000 students since 2011, but housing has not kept up. In Berkeley, the university houses fewer of its undergraduates than any other campus in the system, about 22 percent.
The crowding has ratcheted up tensions in the famously liberal city, where longtime residents have repeatedly filed lawsuits over campus housing projects. The litigation that led to the enrollment freeze stemmed from an environmental impact report that the plaintiffs, including a local critic of university development, said failed to adequately analyze and address the impact of campus enrollment, which has exceeded the university’s prior estimates by at least 30 percent.
That analysis was required under the California Environmental Quality Act, also known as CEQA, which was enacted in the 1970s to protect the state’s natural resources from development, but has also been weaponized in the courts to block housing.
Calls to overhaul the environmental act have been rising for decades, but state lawmakers have been loath to delve into the sprawling and complicated statute, nipping and tucking it instead with myriad carve-outs and workarounds.