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A lawsuit threatens drastic cut to UC Berkeley's fall enrollment

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A lawsuit threatens to cut UC Berkeley's fall enrollment by a third. Now the university is asking California's Supreme Court to step in. Meanwhile, the school wants to send out acceptance letters while it appeals the enrollment freeze. Sara Hosseini from member station KQED has the story.

SARA HOSSEINI: Seventeen-year-old Aniyah Story, an Oakland High School senior, is trying to decide where to go to college.

ANIYAH STORY: Every time I see, like, a college in my email, I get really excited because it's around that time where decisions come out. So let me see if I can find it.

HOSSEINI: She comes across as sharp, passionate and involved. So it's not hard to imagine her inbox full of acceptance letters. Among her top picks, right on her home turf, is UC Berkeley. But the letter from them says...

STORY: It says, we want to thank you for considering UC Berkeley. And then they kind of explain the situation.

HOSSEINI: ...In short, that her odds just got slimmer.

STORY: I felt just kind of like my chances just kind of slipped away from me.

HOSSEINI: A 2019 lawsuit by neighbors of the UC Berkeley campus has resulted in a judge cutting incoming enrollment by about 30%. A few blocks away from the UC Berkeley campus, retiree Phil Bokovoy lives in a big house on a wide street with views of the hills. In the last 20 years, enrollment at his alma mater grew by 40%. He says the neighborhood has changed a lot since then.

PHIL BOKOVOY: Housing displacement, noise, increased waste - and I really am sad at what we've lost in Berkeley, and that's why I've been leading our community's efforts to hold the university accountable.

HOSSEINI: Bokovoy is president of Save Berkeley's Neighborhoods, the group that filed the original lawsuit together with the city of Berkeley.

BOKOVOY: This house across the street used to have a family that lived there, with kids, and it turned into what we call a mini dorm. And two houses up here, there's 14 students living in 2,500 square feet.

HOSSEINI: Bokovoy says before Cal accepts more students, it needs to provide housing for the ones it already has. Ten percent of Berkeley's students reported they'd experienced homelessness while at the college in a 2017 survey. Cal eventually agreed to pay the city $83 million, and the city withdrew from the suit. But the neighbors persisted, and in August, the court required the university to freeze enrollment at 2020 levels. A judge said it needs to study and address the expanding student body's environmental impacts on the city at large, something he said it repeatedly failed to do. Now Cal is asking the state Supreme Court to pause that cap while it appeals. Cal spokesman Dan Mogulof.

DAN MOGULOF: We're in the process right now of exploring every conceivable option to mitigate the decision if it can't be reversed.

HOSSEINI: Mogulof says the school is trying to build more housing, but these kinds of legal challenges slow things down. Meanwhile, he says admitting fewer freshmen would cost the school about $57 million, potentially limiting financial aid for low-income students and shrinking class offerings.

MOGULOF: We know how hard these thousands of students have worked in order to gain entry into Berkeley, and we don't want to let them down.

HOSSEINI: Mogulof says the university is considering partnering with other schools and encouraging students to graduate or take their courses online. Late last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom joined Cal in asking the state Supreme Court to stay the judge's order. While all that's going on, Oakland High School senior Aniyah Story knows she doesn't have much more time to decide where she's going to school.

STORY: And it's just very emotional about it, because this is a school that I'm very interested in going to, that a lot of my friends and classmates are interested in going to.

HOSSEINI: UC Berkeley is urging the Supreme Court to act quickly so we can let thousands of would-be students like story know what's possible by the end of March. For NPR news, I'm Sara Hosseini in Berkeley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sara Hossaini is a reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. She holds a bachelor's degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She brings a blend of documentary journalism and public interest communications experience developed through her work as a nonprofit multimedia consultant and Associate Producer on national PBS documentary films through groups such as the Center for Asian American Media, Fenton Communications and The Working Group. She likes to travel, to get her hands in the dirt and to explore her creative side through music, crafts and dance.