Facing sharply declining undergraduate course enrollments, the Sociology department is attempting to reinvigorate its program by reaching out to sophomores and stabilizing faculty attrition, department chair Karl Ulrich Mayer said this week.
The number of undergraduates enrolled in sociology courses has decreased nearly 75 percent over the last five years, according to Yale’s Office of Institutional Research. As recently as 2002-’03, students submitted 1,249 registrations in sociology courses. But after falling steadily, that number dipped below 400 last year. Meanwhile, only 23 juniors and seniors declared sociology as their major last year, compared with 49 during the 2002-2003.
“There’s no doubt we have fewer students than we had a decade ago,” Mayer said.
The department, he said, has been “totally restructured” since 2002. The turnover in the department’s faculty leads to lower course enrollment because it makes word-of-mouth recommendations less prevalent than they would be if the faculty — and therefore the course offerings — were more stable, sociology professor Philip Gorski said.
But professors also pointed to wider academic shifts that may be causing the decline. Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said the recent astronomical growth in popularity of the political science and economics departments has funneled some students away from sociology.
“I think the popularity of certain majors tends to follow a kind of cyclical pattern,” Salovey said. “Right now, in a period where there is a lot of international conflict as well as economic instability, that tends to push people toward political science and economics.”
Salovey has previously speculated that the influx of students into the political science and economics majors — both of which have been growing steadily over the past five years — may also be the cause of declining registration in humanities courses, which reached an all-time low this year, according to OIR data.
Prospective sociology majors may also be choosing programs like Ethnicity, Race, and Migration — an area of coverage typically encompassed in the sociology curriculum, Mayer said.
But emeritus sociology professor Wendell Bell, who began teaching at Yale in 1963, said the current decline cannot be attributed to a department weakness or the lack of course offerings.
“I think it’s the best department of sociology we’ve ever had at Yale,” he said. “The students maybe don’t have as good judgment as they should.”
Indeed, there is some evidence that the department’s offerings might regain popularity with upcoming classes. For example, Mayer said the department has seen a spike in the number of sophomores who have declared themselves as sociology majors.
And while Salovey said current events are pushing Yalies toward political science and economics, emeritus sociology professor Charles Perrow, who retired from Yale in 2000, said, with time, they may actually bring students back to sociology.
“With the coming recession and change in administration, we’re going to have an upsurge in undergraduates concerned with the social issues that are at the heart of sociology,” Perrow said. “And Yale should participate in that.”
Administrators are certainly trying to woo students.
Mayer said the department held a study break in early March to alert sophomores to the possibility of majoring in sociology, and that another one will follow on April 16. He said the department has to be more proactive about elucidating the benefits of majoring in sociology, which he said include providing a solid foundation for law school and medical school.
And, Mayer added, the department has added a number of introductory courses taught by senior faculty members that will solve the “supply” problem he believes is another cause of the decline in course enrollments.
Current sociology majors agreed that the department should do a better job of publicizing its strengths and even the basic definition of sociology as a discipline.
Sociology major Sabina Mehmedovic ’10 said ambitious Yalies sometimes discount sociology as a simple major that yields few practical job opportunities.
“If it were up to me I’d have the department do more PR work, make more connections to internships and post-graduation work opportunity available to undergraduates, and be more visible in campus political life,” Mehmedovic wrote in an e-mail. “I will probably double major in something more practical since I still don’t know what kind of job, if any, it could lead to.”
But the decline in interest has its benefits, said sociology major Liz Olson ’10. With fewer students electing to study sociology, those who do get more attention from advisors and professors.
“Variety is great when trying to choose a course schedule, but when it comes down to it I feel like I’ve had a lot of one-on-one contact with professors,” Olson said. “And because I found the professors so accessible, I decided to stick with it.”