By When history professor Abbas Amanat went on sabbatical last spring, Yale hired a visiting lecturer to fill in for one of his classes. She was Joanna de Groot, and she came all the way from the University of York, in Great Britain, to teach Yale’s course on “State, Society & Culture in the Middle East.”
The class met in a medium-sized lecture hall in Linsly-Chittenden, but just over a dozen students showed up. And, as she grimly noted at the beginning of the second lecture, de Groot suspected it was not because of the wintry weather.
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“In a big lecture hall like that, when there’s miles and miles of empty seats, it feels a little disengaged,” said Michael Thornton ’10, one of the few students who enrolled in the class.
Last year, de Groot’s class proceeded. But now, budget constraints are forcing administrators to consider an idea they have long spurned: eliminating classes to save money. The suggestion marks the first significant foray into searching for cost-savings within the academic core of the University.
“We’re very much protecting the core mission — financial aid, academic opportunities,” Provost Peter Salovey said. “But I do think we have an obligation to look at very small courses that are offered annually and think maybe could they could be offered every other year, provided there’s no significant negative impact.”
Salovey said his office will “scrutinize” classes with low enrollment to see if the University could possibly save money by offering them less frequently. For example, fewer visiting lecturers and faculty could be hired to fill in for courses whose instructors go on sabbatical.
Salovey added that a six-person class offered every other year might be a better class than a three-person course offered annually.
“It’s hard to be in a class with fewer than three students,” Yale College Dean Mary Miller said. “[They need] a robust cohort to have the opportunity to exchange ideas and learn from one another.”
In its 2003 report, the Committee on Yale College Education praised the number of small courses offered, but cautioned against overspecialization at the expense of high-quality introductory lectures.
At the time, 29.4 percent of Yale College courses had between two and nine students. Last year, that figure had grown to 34.4 percent.
“It’s part of the wonder of this place, but it does cost a lot of money,” Associate Dean for Assessment Judith Hackman said.
Deputy Provost Lloyd Suttle would not disclose the number of classes with just two or three students, but he said it is a “significant number.”
Given the amount of data on enrollment patterns, administrators should be able to predict enrollments with some confidence, Salovey said. But too often, by the time they find out a class is under-enrolled, it’s too late. Each year, one or two classes are cancelled because they are under-enrolled, Associate Registrar Daria Vander Veer said.
Still, Miller said cuts will be made more with a focus on flattening faculty growth than with an intent to reduce the number of courses. That means reducing short-term appointments — and, inevitably, the classes those faculty teach.
“We don’t go out and cancel courses because of numbers,” Miller said.
Courses that are not offered this year but have been offered recently, and will be offered again, are denoted in the Blue Book by brackets.