Enrollment size a concern, faculty say

Michael Kowaleski

The Lafayette College class of 2017 may be one of the largest ever, but that might not be a good thing according to some key faculty members.

“It’s a record-breaker, but where’s the tipping point?” Head of the English Department Patricia Donahue said. “At what point do we stop being a liberal arts college and turn into something else? Something that we don’t want to be?”

Reevaluating the size of Lafayette and keeping an eye on significant changes in the student-faculty ratio are paramount issues that faculty want newly inaugurated President Byerly to focus on in the upcoming months. Citing potential problems in the student-faculty ratio was of primary concern.

“I want Lafayette to be competitive with the best of the top 20 liberal arts colleges in the country,” said George Panichas, the Head of the Philosophy Department and a Lafayette professor since 1980. “What I hate is a competitor that punches below its weight. I think we’re punching below our weight.”

Panichas cites the U.S. News and World Report rankings of the best liberal arts schools in the nation. The 2013 iteration of the annual rankings list Lafayette College as 36th, with Patriot League colleagues Bucknell, Holy Cross, and Colgate occupying the 32nd, 25th, and 20th spots respectively. President Byerly’s former school Middlebury is ranked fourth, and former President Daniel Weiss’s new college Haverford is ranked ninth.

The concern is not just across the humanities. Civil & Environmental Department Head Arthur Kney and Mechanical Engineering Department Head Jenn Rossmann both said that engineering faculty are feeling overwhelmed by increasing classes.

“In my department, enrollments have steadily increased for as long as I can remember,” Rossmann said in an email. Rossmann has been with the school since 2005. “We see the strain on our lab spaces and in our classrooms, both of which are fuller than we’d like.”

Kney agreed with Rossmann that engineering departments are feeling overfilled, describing faculty as “overworked.”

“Increasing enrollment is great, but it takes its toll on faculty,” he said. “It may serve the college in a better way, but it comes down to two things: where are the students going? And also, we tout the idea of being a community that does operate on small classes, but what is a small class?”

U.S. News and World Report says that Lafayette has 41 percent of classes of above 20 students. This number is unacceptable, according to Panichas.

“Bottom line: we don’t have as good student-faculty ratio as [competitors],” he said. “The best relationship you have with your students in institutions is when you have a faculty member with a very small number of students. So if you get too big, and we’ve gotten too big in my judgment, you’re really endangering that critical component of liberal arts education.”

Lafayette currently sits at an 11:1 student-to-faculty ratio. None of the top 10 in U.S. News dip under 10:1, and the top school, Williams College, has a 7:1 ratio.

Not all faculty are concerned about increased enrollment.

“I don’t think we’re ever going to become a college of 5,000,” Economics Professor Susan Averrett said. “I’m not as concerned about enrollment increases. I don’t know what the right number is for Lafayette, but I think it’s worth looking at. I’m open to taking a good look at the size of the college and asking ourselves, ‘if we tweak that a little bit at the margins, can that be a good thing?’”

Byerly is aware of the fervor surrounding the creeping class sizes.

“My sense is that faculty were unhappy not just about growth but about the idea that it hadn’t been planned,” she said. “It hadn’t been intentional, the size kept creeping up. I think that’s completely reasonable and legitimate. The size of the school should be something that we plan for and something we agree on.”

She plans to set up a task force to address the issue.

“The task force… will include some faculty from the Enrollment Planning Committee and the Faculty Academic Policy Committee as well as some other faculty,” she said. “I would really like them to think about what they see as the pluses and minuses of different configurations.” She noted that the Board of Trustees will be examining the college’s overall business model in the spring.

Faculty also had some smaller issues across the board that they would like to see addressed. But what seems to be a consensus opinion is that everyone has high hopes for Byerly’s presidency.

“She has a lot of goodwill,” Panichas said. “Everyone’s rooting for her to succeed.”

UPDATE: The first edition of this article included an error. The class of 2017 is not a record-breaker in terms of enrollment size, but in the number of applications received.