Author: John Loizeaux
After recently suffering through the uncertainty associated with class registration, most Occidental students would agree that there are too few class spaces for too many students. This problem arises mainly from the fact that enrollment is gradually increasing while class spaces are limited, and each professor can only teach a certain number of courses to allow time for their independent research. These issues highlight a growing trend of the school straying from its mission “to provide a gifted and diverse group of students with a total educational experience of the highest quality,” as stated in Occidental’s Strategic Plan for 2012-2017. While this is an excellent goal, the school is not currently satisfying it, and will have tremendous difficulty reaching the goal if the student body size continues to expand.
The Strategic Plan outlines the school’s vision and future goals to keep Occidental on par with other elite small liberal arts colleges. A key aspect of the school’s vision is to create “an intimate, residential college where teaching matters, and where faculty members develop close working relationships with their students.” Since 2008, enrollment has increased from 1,826 to 2,123, more than a fifteen percent increase in four years. An increasing trend in that period of time cannot merely be an admissions anomaly.
A common view on campus is that class sizes are too big for students to cultivate meaningful relationships with professors. This is evident to anyone who frequently attends office hours, a time specifically set aside for small group discussions and one-on-one conversations with professors. It is not uncommon for professors to run out of time to speak with each student individually or for large groups to congregate in and around a professor’s office, preventing quality student-faculty interactions. These situations frequently occur because of the exorbitant class sizes. For a school that boasts a 10:1 student-faculty ratio, it is certainly not evident in most classes.
Another consequence of increasing enrollment is the lack of adequate full-time faculty to teach additional sections of popular courses. To satisfy the need for more instructors, the school recruits a large number of visiting professors. Adjunct professors are rarely on campus other than to teach classes, thus it is difficult to build any level of rapport with them. In addition, the frequent turnover in these positions gives the impression that the school cannot consistently recruit faculty interested in forming a long-term bond with the school. Although the underlying factors are most likely money-related, it is detrimental to the school’s image to give off this impression.
To the administration’s credit, they acknowledge this problem in the Strategic Plan by including in their objectives to “enhance the ratio of tenure-track faculty to students which exemplifies the college’s recognition of the unique bond between students and faculty.” Most if not all faculty members come to Occidental for the opportunity to teach in intimate settings as opposed to large lecture halls. Some are surprised to find their classes to be larger than they imagined, a factor that may encourage their decision to move on after a semester or two. In its effort to attract high-quality faculty interested in a long-term role at Occidental, the administration must first take serious steps to reduce class sizes.
There is a finite amount of space on this campus, so continued expansion will put unnecessary pressure on campus resources. Campus housing is already over capacity, a problem that is exacerbated by the requirement for most students to live on campus through their junior year. With the present campus limits, there is no room to add new on-campus housing to accommodate the growing enrollment. A short-term solution to relieve this pressure could be to relax on-campus living requirements for a couple years until enrollment falls back down to a long-term sustainable level. Although this would be a step backward in the effort to build community through residential housing, it is a small price to pay to alleviate the stress many students experience living in forced triples.
Occidental claims the unique title of being a small residential liberal arts college in a big city focused on developing strong bonds between students and faculty. If the college continues on its current path, it will be difficult to maintain the residential atmosphere and intimate classroom settings. Without these distinctive qualities, it runs the risk of becoming a commuter campus where students and faculty only convene on campus for classes.
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