Next semester brings larger classes, fewer faculty

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Photo courtesy of University of the South Flickr

By Fleming Smith

Executive Editor

In the Advent 2017 semester, lecture and discussion classes across departments will increase the number of class seats from 25 to 29, and many seminars will move from 16 to 20 students. Some departments will offer classes with 70-90 class seats. Furthermore, budget constraints will lead to a reduction in contingent, or non-tenured, faculty over the next year in order to create a smaller student to faculty ratio.

“We’ve reduced our contingent faculty a little bit this fall and we’ll reduce it more in the fall of 2018, and then at that point we should be well-set. We know where we should be and we’ll get there, and after that things should be pretty stable,” said Dean of the College Terry Papillon.

Despite the reduction in faculty, this year’s fall semester plans to include five to seven percent more class seats than the previous fall semester, according to Papillon. These changes reflect a new budget that hopes to shift some resources away from small class sizes to projects such as renovation, which Papillon believes have been neglected up to this point.

“We could have a smaller curriculum and that would allow us to have more resources into fewer programs, which will allow us to spread [resources] out, especially with programs that didn’t have a lot of enrollment. That discussion actually makes me a little nervous,” Papillon explained.

No changes will be made to the curriculum without input from the faculty, but Papillon identified a need to look more closely at programs without high enrollment or student interest. “I don’t anticipate us doing any major changes to the curriculum,” Papillon clarified.

He mentioned possibly creating a student leadership group including campus leaders such as the Presidents of the Student Government Association and the Order of the Gown with whom he could meet regularly and discuss issues such as this.

In a letter to the faculty dated March 20 (published in its entirety here), Papillon outlined the administration’s plan for class sizes and the reduction of contingent faculty over the next two years. He notes that having fewer numbers of contingent faculty has been a “long-standing plan” and that there have been other budget pressures regarding the faculty, such as increases in salaries for tenured faculty.

However, despite the memo, the new policies have created some confusion among the faculty. “I’m not fully sure I understand anymore what it’s doing to the number of faculty here,” said History Department Chair Woody Register. He does not believe the History Department’s faculty will be affected at this time, but the increased class sizes concern him.

“I’m hoping that the limit will be temporary, that this is a necessity to get us through a couple of years and get some things figured out. To me, the part that I’m most worried about is not so much the 29 but the capping seminars at 20. That does, to me, affect the pedagogy,” Register explained.

According to Papillon, he communicated to the faculty that only senior seminars must be raised to 20 students, but the History Department will set all upper division seminar classes that meet once or twice a week at 20. “This may be some confusion on my part about what the Dean means by senior seminar,” said Register to explain the discrepancy.

“My hope is that maybe this is a two-year aberration,” Register said on the subject of increased class sizes. “If it’s temporary, it’s tolerable, so long as it’s equitable.”

Papillon initially suggested the increase in class seats as a one-time solution, but as the situation develops, he is unsure of whether or not it will become the new normal. “That’s one of the conversations the faculty and I will be having throughout the rest of the spring,” Papillon added.

The University will soon reach its enrollment goal of 1,750 students, after which neither Papillon or Register foresee significant changes in class sizes. However, Papillon noted that many of Sewanee’s enrollment peers often offer classes ranging around 30 students and larger, and that the small class sizes seen previously are more typical of colleges with a much larger endowment. One reason for the choice of having 29 class seats is for the benefit of the U.S. News and World Report college rankings, which reward colleges for having a number of classes below 30.

Regarding contingent faculty, Papillon told The Purple that any faculty not returning next semester have been notified and were already aware of their status.

“Some of those faculty have long-term contracts and we’re certainly honoring those, but most contingent faculty are on one-year contracts. The people that aren’t going to be with us next year for the most part knew they weren’t going to be with us next year. They might have hoped that they would have been reappointed, but they weren’t,” said Papillon.

Another category of faculty members not returning next semester includes those who teach a small number of classes, lower than the requirement of five classes for contingent faculty, but who do not rely on the University for their livelihood.

“It originally affected Psychology a lot, and what I did was make adjustments to the plan. That was just such a shock to a system. Psychology had so many contingent faculty. I organized the system so that we got a whole bunch of adjunct faculty back for Psychology next year,” Papillon explained. He identified the Education, Music, and Business programs as areas that would collapse without contingent faculty, also requiring adjustments.

Regarding class sizes, Papillon expressed confidence that the faculty can adjust to 29 students in lecture and discussion classes. “A lot of courses will not feel particularly different,” added Papillon. “We’re in a very stable place, but I would argue that we’ve been ignoring things we can’t ignore anymore. I don’t anticipate it changing much after this.”

Register noted that many faculty are used to teaching larger classes, but he does not hope the policy will last long-term. “We’re all uneasy about this. But as you know, with students, the ‘new’ becomes the way it’s always been,” Register said. “So within a few years, they may have a different idea.”

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