When I left my room to get to the first class of Political Science 233, “Constitutional Law,” last Wednesday, I made sure I was on track to arrive early.
Several friends who had taken the class in previous semesters told me I should not miss anything, even during shopping period, for this was one of those classes that made Yale “Yale”: professor Akhil Amar teaching in the well-appointed Sudler Hall, Yale College students learning about the fundamental tenets of America’s legal and political structure and the occasional guest appearance by a Supreme Court justice (or perhaps two).
But as I got to Sudler Hall five minutes before the start of class, what I saw was not exactly the intimate academic experience one might expect of Yale College.
Students were everywhere. Every single chair was taken. The stairs were crammed with bodies, as were the slivers of aisles leading into a hall with a stated occupancy of 200. Indeed, this was closer to the kind of overstuffed classroom one might have experienced at the woefully underfunded University of California, Berkeley, where I spent three semesters before transferring to Yale. Last fall, the Bay Area school had to open up a 1,000-seat concert hall for the introductory session of the first class in the computer science major.
Amar was captivating, as expected, and prepared to deal with the overflowing interest. The number of sections increased, more teaching fellows were recruited and the possibility of moving to the larger law school auditorium across the road was also briefly considered. A little more than a week into shopping period, the measures seemed to have been enough — with some students dropping the course, the class now fits inside Sudler Hall.
While the fixes are working, the root problem for many such courses remains — interest in the class remains disproportionately high, and no solution attempts to solve this problem.
As of Thursday night, 233 people were still signed up to take the course, with registration peaking at 263 students earlier this week. Last spring, registration peaked at 220 and ultimately settled to 158 students. In each of the six spring semesters in which Amar previously taught the course this decade, there has only been more interest in the spring of 2013, when he was offering it after a brief hiatus.
There are numerous potential explanations for this increase. Perhaps they are within the expected variations for any lecture class of this size. “Constitutional Law” might be on the minds of more people given the prevalence of questions such as whether an American president might be able to pardon himself. But it is also true that Yale College welcomed its largest class in decades this fall, marking a 200-student increase in undergraduate enrollment.
CLASS SIZE CONCERNS
When Amar asked all first years in the room to raise their hand on the first day of class, it was clear that a substantial proportion of the interest in Political Science 233 was coming from the 1,580-strong class of 2021. With 200 more first years expected to arrive on campus each year until 2020, undergraduate enrollment is slated to grow by 800, or 15 percent, over four years.
But Amar’s class — as good an introduction to one of Yale’s most prominent scholars as any first year might have gotten on their first day — was not the only class frequented by first years to see an overall spike in interest.
According to physics lecturer Adriane Steinacker, who teaches the introductory course for intended physics majors at Yale College, there will be at least 50 more students enrolled in the course this fall — the vast majority of whom are first years.
Steinacker will be teaching two sections herself, and is concerned that total enrollment might be pushing each section to unacceptable sizes.
“For Yale, it is absolutely important to keep the classes small, especially in the STEM courses,” Steinacker said, referring to the common acronym for courses in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. “With a class of 100 [students], it is no longer possible to encourage people to speak up in class.”
Introductory courses across the college are seeing the increased interest that Steinacker spoke of. Total enrollment in English 114 writing seminars has increased by 20 percent since last fall, and Mathematics 115, one of the introductory calculus options offered in the Mathematics Department, has seen an increase of 100 students in the same time period.
Steinacker, who as a lecturer is a member of the nonladder faculty, said she is considering whether an additional section might be required in order to ensure that students get the most out of the course.
“I’ll do what it takes to make things work,” she said. “I want my students to be happy and like the material and feel like they are being taken care of.”
Noting that the administration’s forecasting has been on target regarding instructional teaching, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Tamar Gendler said the number of teaching sections that have been added since shopping period began has been in the range of the typical number of additions made at the start of a semester.
She also added that in anticipation of the arrival of the new students at Pauli Murray and Benjamin Franklin colleges, a number of tenured, tenure-track and nonladder instructional faculty members have been added.
Gendler said that 51 new tenured and tenure-track faculty members are on campus this year, growing the size of the ladder faculty from 651 to 668, counting 34 departures last year. The 51-member increase, split roughly in thirds among the humanities, social sciences and sciences and engineering, is significantly higher than the typical hiring of approximately 35 new faculty members each year.
“The larger-than-normal increase in our ladder faculty in 2017–18 was part of a five-year plan to increase the size of the FAS ladder faculty to 700 in anticipation of the increase in the size of the student body,” Gendler added. “We are aiming for a net increase of [approximately] 10 ladder faculty per year for each of the next 3 years, or until the FAS ladder faculty reaches its target size of 700.”
The spike in demand for introductory sequences caused by the influx of 200 more first years is being addressed primarily through the hiring of 17 instructional lecturers in nonladder positions who are not eligible for tenure. The disparity in the treatment of faculty on and off the tenure track has drawn significant attention across the American higher education landscape in recent years.
With the additional nonladder faculty, the College has added 12 sections to the introductory course sequence in English, and 12 total sections to core sequences across Spanish, French and Arabic. Full-time instructors have been added for micro and macroeconomics.
In a statement sent on behalf of himself and Gendler, Yale College Dean Marvin Chun noted that so far, the expansion has proceeded as planned.
“The Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ Dean’s Office conducted a detailed analysis of undergraduate course enrollment patterns during the past four years. Based on that analysis, classes and faculty were added to accommodate the projected increase in student body,” Chun wrote. “An informal survey of shopping period suggests that we’re accommodating demand as well as in prior years.”
Noncurricular academic resources have also increased in anticipation of more demand from a larger student body.
Jennifer Frederick, executive director of the recently opened Center for Teaching and Learning, said the CTL planned in advance for an increase in services heavily used by first-year students. The center offers resources including tutoring, funding opportunities and dedicated provisions for multilingual writers.
Frederick noted that the gradual expansion of Yale College over four years will allow parts of the campus like the CTL to adjust steadily and share strategies on what might work well.
“It’s a bit early in the semester for the CTL to have accurate data about how our predictions and preparations match the need,” she added. “We’ll keep our eye on things.”
For now, then, anything close to a disaster seems to have been averted. Whether through impromptu changes such as the addition of new sections or planned increases such as the offering of a record number of first-year seminars this academic year, the expansion of Yale College has seen a like expansion in academic resources offered.
MORE THAN CLASSROOMS
Among students interviewed, the expansion is yet to have registered significantly adverse reactions.
“While it is clear that there are more people around, especially on Science Hill, the expansion has not detracted from my academic experience here,” said Taylor Buscemi ’18, adding that Yale’s system of course enrollment, warts and all, remains far superior to what she had experienced before transferring to Yale from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“It is also a lot nicer to be able to live in Benjamin Franklin College as a pre-med and have a much shorter commute to class,” she added.
Still, some members of the faculty believe that there is more that needs to be done.
Several faculty members interviewed noted the adverse effects of a shortage of graduate teaching assistants. According to Steinhacker, her introductory course in physics requires significant support from graduate students who serve as teaching fellows.
“They are the ones who do the grading and provide support in study halls, which is so helpful to all students,” Steinhacker said, stressing that teaching fellows are needed to help guide students through complex problems and theories. “Having people like myself teach 300 students is still within the realm of possibility — but it will be much harder if I don’t have enough teaching fellows.”
Chemistry professor Charles Schmuttenmaer, who noted that he is strongly supportive of the expansion in a general sense, said the administration needs to do whatever it takes to maintain the Yale College educational experience for students, adding that it requires more than providing living space.
“The expansion has to be done properly in order to not diminish the Yale undergraduate educational experience,” Schmuttenmaer said. “There is probably not one single thing that will define the level of success of the expansion, but rather many, many, many little things that could all add up to a different tenor and potentially diminish the Yale educational experience.”
Schmuttenmaer said he believes that the administration needs to hire more ladder faculty. In explaining his position, he cited an analogy he had heard in which the 15 percent expansion of Yale’s student body was compared to airline travel. He suggested that a 15 percent increase in passengers could not simply be met by providing more airplanes for them to use, but also needed more gates at the airport, more flight attendants and more pilots to ensure that the flight experience was not diminished.
“There is no getting around the fact that more students require more professors,” Schmuttenmaer said. “The ladder faculty and the instructional faculty — formerly designated as nonladder — even more so are being asked to shoulder the burden that the administration has created. To me, this feels like an unfunded mandate.”
Music professor Ian Quinn also noted that faculty hiring practices may need to change in response to the expansion of the student body. His concerns, however, focused primarily on the ability of the faculty to respond to changes in the backgrounds of the student body, and not just its size.
“We may also find that 700 faculty members in FAS, which was enough to teach a smaller and more homogeneous pool of students, doesn’t give us the teaching resources we need to teach our vibrantly diverse new student body,” Quinn said.
Beyond solutions desired and solutions proposed, some in the University community have also noted that the questions being asked regarding the new colleges are themselves inadequate.
University research archivist Judith Schiff, a longtime New Haven resident and a keen observer of Yale and New Haven’s history, argued that there are two key deficiencies in how conversations surrounding the new colleges have evolved since their planning stages.
First, she stressed that the class of 2021 is not the largest first-year class ever welcomed at Yale. That designation belongs to the first class that entered following the conclusion of World War II.
Figures compiled by George Pierson ’33, the University’s first historian, indicate that 1767 first years arrived on campus in 1946. That incoming class consisted of the several hundred men who had left to fight the war, as well as those who had been admitted but never matriculated and those entering after graduating from high school.
Secondly, and more importantly according to Schiff, the question at hand when it comes to the impact of the new colleges is not so much whether the undergraduate experience at Yale is going to change. For her, that change is inevitable, whether due to evolving times or numbers. Instead, she said that it is worth spending more time thinking about how the expansion is going to affect the undergraduate experience.
NOT JUST NUMBERS
While not at the forefront of the conversation surrounding the expansion of Yale, the impact of a change in the diversity of the student body has prompted some faculty members to begin to consider how the content of a Yale education might need to change as well.
“I don’t think undergraduate education at Yale needs to change in response to the size of the student body,” said Quinn. “Big classes might get bigger, but we’ll always have plenty of small seminars. But the increase in size is coupled with a more impactful increase in ethnic and socioeconomic diversity, and that diversity may demand some curricular changes.”
Schiff, who has been affiliated with Yale for more than 40 years, said the administration is now much better prepared for the expansion of the student body than it has been in previous instances of expansion.
Whereas two new purpose-built residential colleges house the additional first years this fall, many students who matriculated at Yale in 1946 found themselves living in more improvised settings. Residential college occupancy shot up, faculty members and local alumni opened their homes, and cots were set up in Payne Whitney Gymnasium. Some students with families were housed in makeshift huts with corrugated metal walls, while others were assigned one room per family in houses along Hillhouse Avenue — one such room housed two future presidents, George H.W. Bush ’48 and George W. Bush ’68.
As with housing, the expansion saw the administration search everywhere for faculty members to teach, Schiff noted. That included accepting new teachers whose academic qualifications were not the only barrier for their hiring before the war.
“At that time, it was sort of known that it was okay to be Jewish on the faculty if you were a scientist, but not okay in the humanities,” Schiff said. “The thought was that if you did not have Christian values, you would not be interpreting literature and texts the way they were supposed to be traditionally.”
The need to meet demand for instruction from the large class of incoming students thus gave Jewish history professor Rollin Osterweis ’30 a chance to join the Yale faculty, where he served for 33 years, and become an adviser to the Yale Political Union and director of debating and public speaking.
Additionally, when women were admitted for the first time in 1969, resulting in a material expansion to the size of the incoming student body, Schiff said that having men and women working together promoted an amount of beneficial socialization that was not previously available to students, despite their lectures now being slightly larger.
“When there are people teaching and studying who might not have initially expected to be here, it always ends up being at least a little liberating for everyone,” Schiff said. “Ideally, we would spend more time thinking about what might change now.”
When Schiff served as teaching assistant for a class on Yale’s history in the late 1990s, she said that one of her students could not imagine that there was a time when a place like Yale was not welcoming to people from a Jewish background. That such a prevalent aspect of the institution — and the nation’s — history could seem so foreign to a student here showed her the very real possibility of dramatic institutional change.
“With the amount of exposure to the outside world students have now, significant change can happen during a college generation of four years, not just the longer generational change we have seen in the past,” she added.
As of publication, Yale’s new colleges will have been open to new students for less than one full month.
There is much that remains to be found out for how prepared the University has been for the effects of the expansion, and much that will only be found out well after the colleges house the additional 800 students attending Yale College. But as these students come together, some of them from places and socioeconomic backgrounds once considered unimaginable in Yale classrooms, the character of the University will change in ways that forecasts and ratios may not grasp.
And those changes, as worthy of attention as any, will just as much make Yale “Yale” as any class on campus could.
Addy Feibel and Rachel Treisman contributed reporting.
Ishaan Srivastava | firstname.lastname@example.org
Correction, September 9: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that each class at Yale College will eventually grow by 800 students. In fact, total undergraduate enrollment will eventually grow by 800 students.