Administration explains complexities behind class size issues

In response to student complaints and US News and World Report findings that Williams offers fewer small classes than its competitors, members of the Committee on Appointments and Promotions (CAP) and the Committee on Educational Policy (CEP) are again considering the complex issue of class size.

College Council Co-president Will Slocum ’99 said the Council has also taken up the issue of class size in an effort to make the administration aware that the students want smaller classes. And Dean of the College Peter Murphy noted in last week’s edition of the Record that the members of the administration all believe that class size is one of the most important campus issues.

Yolanda Pope ’00 expressed common concerns about her classes. “Especially with psychology, I feel like I’d learn a lot more if there were discussions instead of lectures,” Pope said. “I’ve also gotten booted out of classes because they were too big.”

Andre Mura ’00 said a similar problem exists in the political science department.

“Definitely the introductory political science courses are way too big,” he said. “It’s ridiculous to have 40 people or more in them.”

For many students the issue is also one of class availability. “It comes down to hiring more faculty,” Mura said. “[In political science] all of the professors are away and there are very few 200 and 300 level courses offered.”

Members of the CAP say the committee has tried to weigh student complaints with institutional constraints and administrative concerns. The CAP also responds to departmental requests for faculty and is currently completing the allocations for the 1999-2000 academic year.

Dean of the Faculty D.L. Smith explained that one of the difficulties of considering the class size issue is that individual departments and faculty appointments cannot be isolated from the rest of the College’s affairs. “My job is to look at the college as a whole,” he said.

According to Smith, the College’s budget restricts hiring more faculty. “It’s very expensive. It’s a budgetary issue,” Smith said. “To create and maintain a faculty position costs about a million dollars. That’s a lot of money and a lot of trade-off money,” he added, explaining that given budgetary constraints, the number of faculty needs to remain fairly constant.

The possibility of a trade-off between departments exists, with less popular departments firing professors and more popular departments hiring them. Yet, administrators explain that the College has fundamental objections to this strategy because of the need to maintain a diversity of departments at a continuous level of excellence.

Registrar Charles Toomajian explained that at least three faculty members are needed in a department to offer a major. While one major may be unpopular, leading to a very low student-faculty ratio, that department’s professors cannot be shifted to a department with a high student-faculty ratio to decrease the burden. First, they cannot teach another discipline, and second, the unpopular major would soon cease to exist. Toomajian said Williams would have to cut majors with low enrollment, like the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and other state schools. However, as a liberal arts institution committed to offering a broad range of majors, Williams does not want to cut any majors. “I know we have certain departments that don’t produce dozens of majors, but I don’t think we’re offering any majors that shouldn’t be offered,” Toomajian said.

Dean Smith agreed. “We feel that we have disciplines at the college that are important for the liberal arts, and we have to ensure certain staffing levels to make them viable,” he said.

In addition, Toomajian and Smith argued that the viability of a major should not be determined by student demand. Toomajian explained that while demand changes over time, departments are not so flexible. Professors are hired for several years or for life, and students are entrenched in departments.

Smith added that responding to shifting student demands would undermine the continuity of the College’s offerings. “We don’t feel that departments should be controlled by market factors,” Smith said. “Student preference changes over time, and we think it’s important to guarantee continuity.”

Chair of the Committee on Educational Policy Michael Brown concurred. “It’s not like selling shoes at Wal-Mart. You don’t respond to demand alone,” he said. “If, for example, the College meets current demand in popular departments, and demand falls off in a few years, the College will face the dilemma of having under-utilized faculty. Then reducing department size would become an issue. “It’s very difficult to downsize departments,” he said.

Brown, who is a professor of anthropology and sociology, said he feels that the College is best served by adopting a more long-term perspective. “We’re in it for the long haul. That’s why we’re an excellent institution,” he said.

One possibility for meeting temporary demand is hiring part-time or temporary faculty. However, the College has not found this a palatable alternative. “The College created a policy a few years ago to reduce part-time faculty and faculty on short-term contracts,” explained Brown.

Though this policy may decrease flexibility, it promotes commitment to the Williams community. “We aren’t in the business of relying on migrant labor,” Smith said. “We want full-time faculty here who can get to know the students and engage in the community. It’s good to have visitors, but it’s bad to allow visiting in part-time positions to become too large a part of the staff.”

CAP’s hiring flexibility is limited by Williams’ budget, its commitment to many majors and its shift away from temporary appointments. The economics department serves as a case in point. According to Department Chair Catharine Hill, the economics department has requested FTE’s (full-time equivalents) for the last two years. “We made a request last year, and we got a partial answer, a partial FTE,” said Hill.

Trade-off Solutions

Administrators and faculty say the real answers to the issue of class size lie in trade-offs within departments. Catharine Hill explained that departments can either cap courses to keep them small or allow them to grow in size to meet student demand. “It’s hard to know which way to go. There are problems with all of them,” Hill said.

She explained that the economics department has tended to allow lower level and theory courses to grow to meet demand, but problems have arisen.

“I think we’re teaching some courses at a size that’s not optimal,” she said. “I think the faculty find larger classes harder to teach effectively.” Hill added that the department has tried to cap upper level courses.

As registrar, Toomajian deals with student responses to departmental decisions on class size. “On the one hand, students complain about large class size, but then they get mad when they can’t get into a class,” he said. He characterized it as a “double-edged sword.”

Smith and Brown suggested a more basic resolution to the issue: restrict freedom of choice to balance class size. They explained that if there were more core course requirements or more institutional control over schedules, classes would be automatically balanced. CAP could know who to hire because they would automatically know where students were matriculating, rather than waiting for students to decide at the beginning of each term.

“It’s p
retty obvious why we have a problem of over-enrolled classes. It’s a problem of poor distribution of students among classes. We place a high value on student choice,” Smith said. “If we were to exert more control over student choice, we could balance departments.”

“Do we want absolute freedom of choice or do we want small class size?” asked Brown. “I personally think we should have a more structured curriculum, but I think it’s fair to say I’m a minority on the faculty,” he added.

Defining the Problem

Institutionally and departmentally, there seems to be no easy answer to smaller class size. Part of the problem lies in defining the issue of class size itself.

Statistically, class size has not increased; but according to Smith the student-faculty ratio is steady at 10:1. “It compares very favorably to the colleges we compare ourselves to,” Smith said. “When you look at overall numbers, there’s not a problem. When you look at some specific departments and classes, there is a problem.”

According to Brown, 70 percent of the courses offered in fall of 1997 were smaller than 25 students. “It’s true that the average doesn’t get at the reality of the situation. The problem is that there is short-term crowding in particular disciplines,” he said.

Yet, Brown explained that since class size is a student concern, it is an administrative concern. “If there’s a perception that it’s a problem, then it’s a problem,” said Brown. “I can tell you that the administration is listening to students.”

However, Brown said the administration is having trouble understanding what students want. “The problem we’re facing is that we’re having trouble seeing what the class size problem is,” he said. “It’s totally anecdotal. It’s not very systematic.”

The Committee on Educational Policy is encouraging students to better define the issue for the administration. Justin Yarmark ’99, a CEP member, said he plans to coordinate the discussion of the CEP and the Committee on Undergraduate Life (CUL) on class size.

“All that’s happening right now is that we’re figuring out what kind of discussion needs to happen. In the beginning, it’s just to figure out what the issue is,” he said. He explained that some students talk about class size in terms of mean, others in terms of average, and others in terms of personal experience. “We’re all talking about the class size, but it seems like we could be talking about very different things. I’m just hoping to focus the discussion a little more,” he said. Yarmark added that the CEP and CUL plan to form sub-committees on the issue.

As students define the issue, Brown posed some difficult questions for them. Since budget is the first constraint to class size, Brown said students must make difficult decisions. “Are we willing to give up the Spice Girls concert and hire a new faculty member? Are we willing to take a cut in the quality of the food for a new Economics professor?”

Brown said students must also weigh the trade-offs of capping. “The kind of thing that would be useful to know is whether students would like more capping on courses to guarantee small class sizes, with the understanding that they will be shut out?” he said.

If students can reach a conclusion on the issue of class size, Brown believes the College can work towards a solution. “If there is a problem, and we can establish what it is, the College will solve it,” he said.

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