Fifteen years ago, various publications consistently ranked Yale’s Political Science Department the best in the nation. But professors said a combination of a 1990s hiring freeze and expansions at competing institutions has left Yale struggling to reclaim its position.

The University is currently in the midst of an ambitious political science expansion plan, which it began five years ago. Construction is set to begin on a new department building next fall, and the University is tapping new professors at a fast pace, Political Science chairman Ian Shapiro said.

Shapiro said Yale is filling the gaps in the Political Science Department in an attempt to accommodate increased student interest in the field and, according to some professors, to compete with top-ranking departments at Harvard and Princeton universities.

“In order to maintain a top-flight department and in order to be competitive nationally with the other top departments, it [is] necessary to expand,” Shapiro said.

With 37 professors, Yale’s Political Science Department is relatively small compared to peer institutions. Similar departments at Harvard and Princeton boast 54 professors and 44 professors, respectively. These departments’ larger sizes are due in part to sharing professors with the universities’ professional schools — Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

At Yale, the ratio of enrolled undergraduates to senior faculty in the Political Science Department was 85-to-1 in 1993, and it has increased to 137-to-1 this year, Yale statistics show. Twenty years ago, the department had 182 junior and senior majors. That number has nearly doubled, with 335 junior and senior majors last year.

Yale President Richard Levin announced five years ago that the University would invest heavily in the Political Science Department to meet increasing student demand.

Political Science Director of Undergraduate Studies David Cameron said the department’s high student-to-faculty ratio convinced University administrators to increase the department’s faculty. He said in light of other universities’ hiring moves, Yale’s competition is stiff.

“The more serious concern for us is that Harvard’s really pursued a very aggressive hiring strategy for the better part of the last decade and by most evaluations is now regarded as the best department in the country,” Cameron said.

Cameron said Yale consistently stood atop national political science and government rankings between 1955 and 1985 but slipped behind Harvard, Princeton, the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Michigan in the last decade.

Yale instituted a hiring freeze in the mid-1990s during a budget crisis. At the same time, competing institutions increased their faculty and, in doing so, surpassed Yale in the rankings, Cameron said.

Princeton’s Politics Undergraduate Program Director Keith Whittington said his department is expanding in part to accommodate an expected 500 student increase in the college’s undergraduate student body.

As Yale moves forward with its expansion plans — a four-story political science building and a new social sciences library are planned for Prospect Street — the Political Science Department continues to recruit new faculty members, Shapiro said.

“[We] have some flexibility in use of resources,” Shapiro said. “[Expansion] depends on whether political science remains a priority.”

Shapiro said his department is focused on careful growth centered on quality, not quantity.

“A lot of Yale departments are smaller than the ones they compete with,” Shapiro said. “Size is not a guarantee of quality, but a critical mass is important.”

The nationwide trend of increasing numbers of political science majors is not to be ignored, University of Pennsylvania Political Science Department chairman Rogers Smith said.

“Certainly in the last couple of years there’s been tremendous interest in international affairs issues in the wake of Sept. 11, [2001] and the war on terrorism,” said Smith, a former Yale political science professor. “The profession improved greatly in its attention to subjects such as race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity and religion, subjects that were much more rarely taught a decade ago and that [now] command broad student interest.”