Budget questions in political science department

By Gwenn Barney

Like core classes in any major, those offered in the political science department might be the… Like core classes in any major, those offered in the political science department might be the building blocks of the major, but they’re also the core cause of headaches for a number of students and faculty in the department.

Junior Deborah Jackson summed up the frustrations.

“There aren’t enough classes,” she said.

Like all political science majors, Jackson is required to take five “core classes” — research methods, political theory, world politics, American political process and comparative politics. And like many students in her major, Jackson struggled to find a seat in courses covering the required material.

“It took me four semesters to get into research methods,” she said. The wait forced her to take upper-level classes instead.

Junior Chris Comer reported a similar experience trying to fulfill his political science requirements. He too was forced to take upper-level classes in lieu of unavailable core classes.

“Freshmen are forced to take upper-level courses they’re not ready for,” Comer said.

Students said situations like those faced by Jackson and Comer have been common since the political science department redesigned its major in 2009, creating a five-core-class requirement and adding nine credits to the major. Now the major, which yields a Bachelor of Arts, requires 10 courses, and a Bachelor of Science requires another two courses and a related area.

The department has also become more crowded over the past six years. Between 2005 and today, the number of students pursuing a political science major has doubled from approximately 350 to about 700.

University officials pointed to the increasing number of students and a stagnant budget as significant factors in the registration difficulties.

“We had no way of foreseeing how the major would grow so quickly,” said professor Michael Goodhart, director of undergraduate studies for the department. “The goal with the curriculum change was to, if not shrink the major, at least stop the growth.”

Goodhart said the change brought about the opposite effect from what was expected. Students continued to enroll in the program at an accelerated rate after the restructuring.

Arts and Sciences Dean N. John Cooper addressed the budget troubles and the state of the political science department in an e-mail.

“Two years ago, Arts and Sciences had a five percent reduction in its base budget, which had an effect on all Arts and Sciences departments,” Cooper said. “That has not impeded the Department of Political Sciences’ ability to continue its excellent instruction nor to pursue excellent research.

“In fact, while these budget changes were taking place, political science strengthened its undergraduate major. With regard to recruiting, we are in the middle of a very exciting recruiting season that I’m sure will be successful,” he said.

Junior Seth Kerr believes the only answer to the political science department’s woes is to hire new professors. He emphasized that the new hires should be professors willing to teach lower-level classes.

Department chair Barry Ames said the department is doing the best it can under its current budget to make classes of all kinds available to students.

“We would certainly like to have more professors,” Ames said. “I understand that the University has to maintain a balance between what comes in and what goes out.”

He said that ideally the University would allot the political science department a budget for 30 professors, six more than are currently employed by the department.

“We certainly could use a few more people efficiently,” he said.

With the national recession beginning to lull, the department has put forth a solution to the core class conundrum. This year it introduced a proposal to the provost’s office that would reformat core classes, increasing their size from the current average of 50 students per class to 100. The classes would also change to a two-lecture-and-one-recitation format, rather than the current three-lecture setup.

If approved by the University, Goodhart said the proposal would bring a net gain of between 25 and 50 seats to each intro-class category, with the exception of PS 0600, a political theory course.

The proposal would also make more professors available to teach upper-level classes, shrinking the size of some advanced courses. But Ames said the proposal would require an increase in funding, meaning it would also require approval from the provost’s office.

Some students are not satisfied with the proposed solution. Jackson believes that a change in class size might dissuade students from choosing the political science major.

“Classes are too large as it is,” Jackson said. “If students are not getting the attention they need, they might drop out [of the program].”

Goodhart believes the addition of a recitation for intro classes could ease this concern.

“We hope the recitations would be smaller so that students would have a chance to learn in smaller groups,” Goodhart said.

Goodhart asked that students be patient as the department works to find a solution to these kinks.

“We’re aware of the problem, and we’re working hard to fix it,” he said. “No solution is perfect.”

Editor’s Note: Is your department also grappling with budget cuts? E-mail [email protected] to share your story.