Metropolis

In California, College Students Are Now Officially Considered an Environmental Menace

A local judge has ruled that UC–Berkeley must freeze its enrollment so it can assess the ecological impact of its undergrads.

People walk towards Sather Gate on the U.C. Berkeley campus on July 22, 2020 in Berkeley, California.
Warning: These students are known to the State of California to cause damage to the environment. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Enrolling more students at one of America’s best public universities might be bad for the environment.

That’s the conclusion of California Superior Court Judge Brad Seligman, who on Aug. 23 ordered the University of California–Berkeley to temporarily freeze the number of students it admits every year under the California Environmental Quality Act, putting crowded classrooms in the same category as heavy infrastructure like highways and airports. “Further increases in student enrollment above the current enrollment level at UC–Berkeley could result in an adverse change or alteration of the physical environment,” the judge wrote.

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It’s the latest and most explicit example of California’s famously stringent environmental law being used for population control. Instead of governing the construction of dams or smokestacks, CEQA is frequently leveraged by anti-development groups in California to oppose apartment buildings, homeless shelters, and bus lanes, among other things. Now it’s being employed to micromanage university admissions.

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How’d we get here? Under California law, universities are periodically required to prepare a long-term development plan that includes enrollment forecasts and an environmental impact study. In 2005, UC–Berkeley produced one projecting that its headcount would stabilize at about 33,500 students. Instead, the school ended up enrolling more than 42,000 by 2020, with plans to admit more still in the years to come.

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The university didn’t think that welcoming more students to campus required it to perform a whole new environmental review. But a state appeals court in San Francisco disagreed in 2020, ruling that increasing enrollment counted as a “project” that needed to be evaluated under the CEQA, just like building a stadium or dorm would be.

In doing so, the judges sided with a local community group, Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods, which sued UC–Berkeley in 2019 and set the stage for last week’s lower court decision officially hitting pause on the school’s enrollment ambitions. California’s flagship public university must now assess the ecological cost of its student body at once. (A spokesperson told Inside Higher Ed that school officials were “optimistic that we can file documents with the court very soon that will satisfy the judgment.”)

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Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín isn’t happy with the outcome. The city already settled its own lawsuit challenging the university’s expansion plans last year, after UC-Berkeley agreed to more than double what it pays each year for its students’ use of public services like fire, police, and public transit. The deal was also contingent on the university holding enrollment growth to 1 percent per year.

“Personally, I do not think the city should stand in the way of UC making progress in addressing our housing crisis and preventing future generations of students from getting a world-class education,” Arreguín said in a statement to Berkeleyside. (The lawsuit also halts a classroom-and-apartment complex.)

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But Phillip Bokovoy, the president of Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods, writes off the criticism. He argues the city settled for cheap.* “Our mayor is ambitious and wants to move onto higher office and that’s what drove the settlement,” he told me this week.

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Bokovoy’s view is that the university ought to have built more housing to keep up with its rising enrollment. Over the course of our conversation, however, it became clear that he didn’t actually want Berkeley (the city or the university) to build that housing now. Instead, he wants UC-Berkeley to establish a satellite campus on the industrial waterfront 5 miles to the north, on the other side of the freeway. A Berkeley graduate himself, Bokovoy warned of dire consequences if the university added more students without additional infrastructure.

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“We’ll end up like Bangkok, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur—dense Asian cities where there’s no transportation network,“ he said. “Nobody’s talking about that.”

The real infrastructure that’s needed, according to Berkeley graduate and councilmember Rigel Robinson, who represents the neighborhood where many students live, is simply housing. More kids going to Berkeley? Unquestionably a good thing, in his mind. “California is growing; our institutions of higher education need to grow too. Nothing grinds my gears like hearing older UC–Berkeley alumni who got their degree when it was affordable to do so close the door behind them and pull up the ladder on today’s more diverse generation of students.” Robinson seemed optimistic that the university and the city were finally on the same page about filling that need, a few squeaky wheels notwithstanding.

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In the meantime, UC–Davis law professor Chris Elmendorf told me, the case has raised all sorts of worrisome legal questions. Some will mostly keep college provosts up at night. Is every decision to admit a student something that has to be analyzed under the CEQA if a UC goes over its target? Are new faculty subject to environmental review?

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“But then there’s a larger idea at work in this case as well,” Elmendorf added, “which extends way beyond university enrollment and hiring decisions, and that’s that so-called ‘gentrification’ impacts or social impacts of governmental decisions are environmental impacts and so must be analyzed and mitigated. And that’s an expansion beyond the text of the statute that a lot of advocates have been pushing for.” In other words, CEQA can be invoked to protect human social arrangements like it does those of wild birds. The judge even criticized one of the university’s housing projects for not accounting for “indirect displacement impacts”—meaning he thought the school should have accounted for how adding dorms might affect local housing costs.

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That standard will set a high bar to clear for other universities battling CEQA lawsuits, and even for run-of-the-mill apartment buildings. Researchers barely agree on what effects new housing has in the neighborhood, let alone how to mitigate them. In the long run, moreover, it’s the lack of new housing—not its creation—that propels the state’s displacement and homelessness crisis.

The fight between UC-Berkeley and its neighbors thus illustrates a broader failing of U.S. environmental regulations, which mistakenly prioritize pesky local troubles (a parking shortage from larger class sizes) over larger, more profound issues (thousands of houses being built in wildfire zones, miles away from job centers). Unlike, say, a highway project, would-be undergraduates whose future offers are foregone as a result of this decision do not cease to exist or impact the environment because they are not in Berkeley. They just stay in Orange County or go to college somewhere else.

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After all, UC–Berkeley’s expansion should be a boon to the environment in the grand scheme of things. You could hardly draw up a more ecologically friendly place to live than the East Bay city, which combines a temperate climate with a geography that’s conducive to a car-free life. Organic food is close at hand. It’s all but certain that the 12,000 additional souls who settled in Berkeley between 2010 and 2020 have lowered their carbon footprints just by moving to town.

In that sense, the fact that larger classes warrant an evaluation under CEQA is a sign of just how parochial American environmental law has become. The “environment” protected by a university enrollment freeze isn’t the atmosphere, or ecologically sensitive habitats, or the wildlands of urban sprawl. It’s the front lawns and quiet nights of Berkeley homeowners.

*Correction, August 31, 2021: This article originally misspelled Phillip Bokovoy’s first name.

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