ROSENBAUM: Why cancel my class?

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Photo by Annelisa Leinbach.

I am sympathetic with the efforts of Yale administrators in the Provost’s Office to cut the multi-million-dollar Yale budget deficit. But the last place they should look for cuts are in good, well-taught undergraduate course offerings — particularly in laboratory courses which tend to be more costly than lecture courses.

I refer here to the putative cutting of the “Laboratory in Electron Microscopy-EM”, a lab course in the important area of cell biology, in the Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology Department, for next fall. This course, initiated many years ago, has proven itself to be a popular, in-demand, undergraduate course taken by students in MCDB and MB&B; there are approximately 30 students taking the course this semester, and 10 students are already signed up for next year’s course. The students do not only learn how to prepare tissue for electron microscopy, but also the delicate procedures required for thin-sectioning with ultramicrotomes and staining. Lastly, they learn how to use the electron microscope by themselves. While learning the technology, they also learn a lot about cell ultrastructure.

The undergraduate course critiques give the course and its instructor very high marks. So, where is the problem?

Our department, and I suspect all academic departments at Yale, has been instructed by the Provost to lower our operating budgets for next year. MCDB has been asked to trim about $125,000 from its budget. The MCDB faculty, when confronted with this situation, voted to remove the laboratory in electron microscopy course. No alternative measures for cost-cutting were given.

In 46 years as a professor in the biological sciences at Yale, I have never witnessed a faculty voting to cut one of their colleague’s courses, so I have no historical perspective on this action. I would imagine, however, that most of the faculty members voting on the issue do not have firsthand experience with the technology, and if they need EM analysis, either contract the work out, or have undergraduates, who have taken the EM lab course, do the work for them. Finally, in this case, the course instructor was not even informed of the imminent vote.

The equipment in this course is expensive to buy and maintain, but it is functional. It would easily last another two or three years, at which point we can gather funds, probably from federal grants, to purchase new equipment. Cutting the course now would mean not only cancelling it in the fall of 2014, but probably forever. This class is an offering that adds a little bit extra to the education in biology at Yale, and one has only to skim recent issues of the journals in cell biology to realize the importance of the course as one of the few practical labs taught. Students who take it have an easier time gaining employment on summer and post-graduation jobs in labs. In addition, the instructor in the course also individually teaches graduate and post-doctoral students EM preparatory techniques and use of the equipment for their thesis research. And the faculty often sends their technicians to the EM lab to learn the technology.

I can think of a few other ways, off the top of my head, in which one might cut expenses in the biological sciences at Yale.

First, we can mothball part of the new and partially unoccupied West Campus, which costs millions in upkeep — paid for not by grants of investigators residing there but out of pocket by Yale.

Second, we can take a hard look at undergraduate courses in our department which are team-taught by at least three faculty and with as few as 12 students.

Third — as a general University fund-saver in tough economic times — do not add new deans to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Each new dean, with the accompanying support staff, will cost thousands in new funding. Instead of more administrators, put the money into undergraduate teaching, like the course described above which is being cut.

The bottom line is: One of the primary missions of the faculty is teaching in Yale College. We should not be cutting important undergraduate courses that underlie this mission.

Joel Rosenbaum is a professor of Molecular, Cellular & Developmental Biology. Contact him at joel.rosenbaum@yale.edu .

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