A course correction

UMass tackles challenge of crowded classes, smaller faculty

The 469-seat Mahar Auditorium at UMass Amherst was overbooked for Randall Phillis’s biology class. The 469-seat Mahar Auditorium at UMass Amherst was overbooked for Randall Phillis’s biology class. (Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe)
By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / December 19, 2010

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Third in a series of occasional articles examining challenges facing the University of Massachusetts.

AMHERST — Charlie Ciano slipped into a quiet nook in the hallway between classes and nervously flipped open her laptop. With each passing minute, her chances of enrolling in the courses she wanted next semester dwindled.

Fingers crossed, the UMass junior logged onto the university’s online registration system. Just 20 minutes into her assigned enrollment period, the screen was already crowded with blue squares, indicating that half of her choices were full.

“I know that in the end, I’m going to have to take something I’m not interested in just to graduate on time,’’ Ciano said.

Overbooked classes are among the academic hurdles many undergraduates face at the University of Massachusetts Amherst — a campus struggling to break into the top ranks of public universities after losing nearly a fifth of its tenured and tenure-track professors in the past two decades.

Classes at the flagship campus can be so large that some students sit on the floor in lecture halls, leaning against their backpacks, the walls, or the legs of fellow classmates. Nine percent of all classes have more than 100 students — compared with a national average of 2 percent, according to a College Board analysis of public universities. Faculty lament that they have little choice but to evaluate students in oversize classes by multiple-choice exams and use computers to grade homework.

Some professors have made attendance at lectures optional, offering as an alternative prerecorded lessons over the Internet, which allows the university to serve many more students than would fit into an auditorium. Some students have even received letters from their departmental advisers suggesting that they take classes at other colleges to improve their odds of graduating in four years.

“We’re offering less than we could,’’ said Sigrid Schmalzer, a history professor. “This is a cheaper way of selling degrees, but I really worry about what’s happening to the quality of our education.’’

Relying on adjuncts The diminished size of the permanent faculty — described in a UMass report as considerably smaller than at top public research universities — presents a serious challenge to Chancellor Robert Holub’s goal of improving UMass’s national reputation.

The number of faculty in the tenure system, the lifeblood of research universities, has dropped from a high of 1,201 in 1987 to 978 today, even as the number of undergraduates has risen slightly, to just over 20,000.

Holub, who wants to have 1,200 tenure-system faculty members and 22,500 students by 2020, said a robust faculty is essential as the university seeks to improve undergraduate education, increase the number of doctorates it awards and the amount of research produced on campus, and boost its overall prestige.

But he also argues that when adjunct lecturers who work on temporary contracts are included, the overall student-faculty ratio at UMass is 18-1, which he says is similar to peer universities. And despite the decline of tenure-system professors, the total number of full-time faculty is about the same size as it was 20 years ago because of the increased hiring of lecturers, he said.

“Nationally, when looking at student outcomes, the key factor is not whether you have tenured or tenure-track faculty, but whether you have full-time faculty,’’ Holub said.

He said the university is working to improve the ability of students to enroll in the classes of their choice, as well as to add more small classes.

“It is a priority of ours to have students get into the classes that they need to make progress toward their degrees,’’ Holub said. “We’re dedicating resources to it. You don’t hit it on the nose every semester.’’

The number of classes enrolling fewer than 20 students increased by 31 percent over the last year. This year, the university reduced the number of students in each freshman writing section from 24 to 15.

Holub has also instituted freshman seminars of no more than 18 students to expose first-year students to some of the university’s top professors.

And the university recently announced a $182 million investment in its honors college for a small percentage of elite students, who have greater access to smaller classes and meaningful contact with permanent faculty.

“We are really attacking these problems,’’ said Provost James Staros. “It’s not that they don’t exist, but we’re not sitting back and doing nothing.’’

But many professors and students are less sanguine.

For professors, heavier workloads leave them less time for research and hurt their ability to advise students and write letters of recommendation. And while students overwhelmingly reported being satisfied with their college experience in a UMass survey of the last three graduating classes, nearly a third of respondents said they were disappointed by the quality of academic advising, as well as career preparation and guidance.

“UMass right now has the reputation as a decent school, but not the greatest,’’ said David Robertson, a junior majoring in political science and economics. Robertson said he sees the oversubscribed classes and faculty shortage as significant problems for the university.

“They’re putting effort into becoming one of the front-runner universities, like Michigan and California,’’ he said. “But if you want better educated students who will go on to do great things and donate to the university down the road, this is detrimental to their own cause.’’

‘The wrong direction’ Many other public universities facing budget pressures have also replaced tenure-system faculty with adjunct professors and have introduced online options to meet student demand — coping strategies that are expected to increase, according to national higher education experts.

“It’s happening all across the country,’’ said Molly Broad, president of the American Council on Education in Washington, D.C.

But the cutbacks — and their resulting challenges — are detrimental to UMass’s aspirations to rise into the upper echelon of the nation’s public universities.

“UMass has the very hard job of trying to increase their momentum in quality and recognition at a very tough time,’’ Broad said.

State funding makes up 25 percent of UMass Amherst’s revenues today, down from 40 percent in 2000. And Holub expects that the state’s budget difficulties will lead to more than $18 million in cuts next year.

To help make up for declining state funds, UMass Amherst has raised tuition and fees to $11,732 a year, one of the highest price tags among the nation’s public universities. It currently ranks 49th out of 598 public four-year universities in cost, according to a Chronicle of Higher Education survey. And the university is considering instituting an additional “flagship fee’’ that could add hundreds of dollars to the bill for Amherst students.

Only half of UMass Amherst students graduate in four years, and 66 percent do so in six years. The university lags behind its peers, where an average of 73 percent of students make it through in six years, according to a UMass report comparing the university with a group of 10 schools including the University of Connecticut and Rutgers.

Large lectures are common on nearly every college campus. But the experience is the norm for many UMass students, particularly freshmen and sophomores. Some sit through several classes a day in the 469-seat Mahar Auditorium, the largest lecture hall on campus, which is fully booked from 8 in the morning until 5 in the evening.

In the last decade, the number of classes with more than 100 students has risen by more than 20 percent. Basic interaction with faculty that students at other universities take for granted has become nearly impossible for some UMass students.

Mikayla Astor, a sophomore majoring in resource economics and business management, said her accounting professor was so overwhelmed dealing with hundreds of students that she did not have time to answer her questions before a recent exam.

“I tried to see her during office hours but she said she was already booked,’’ Astor said. “Here I am, trying to learn, and it’s kind of hard. I ended up getting help from a friend.’’

Erika Tabur, a junior from Northbridge, said she teaches herself from the textbook instead of relying on professors.

“It’s really frustrating,’’ Tabur said. “That’s how I got through calculus, and that’s how I’ve made it through chemistry.’’

History professor Audrey Altstadt recently received an e-mail from a student asking her to write a recommendation for graduate school. Altstadt has only spoken to the student three times.

“Students will say, ‘I know you don’t know me very well, but the people I know are gone or too busy,’ ’’ she said.

The history department last year stopped requiring students to consult with their advisers before registering for classes. Instead, it recently started training students to mentor one another.

In the kinesiology department, hundreds of majors received an e-mail last spring with an unusual recommendation: Consider picking up courses at other universities.

“We’ve just had a large number of students not being able to get into classes,’’ said Frank Rife, who advises the 700 students majoring in kinesiology, the science of human movement. “So I suggested that if they were trying to stay on some sort of four-year pace, they should take some of their classes over the summer online, or at Salem State, Framingham State, UMass Boston, wherever it works for them.’’

Biology professor Randall Phillis recalls that when he arrived at UMass in 1989, the biology department was home to 43 tenure-system faculty and about 250 students majoring in the subject. Today, 26 permanent faculty serve the needs of close to 1,000 biology majors. As a result, he said, some advanced or specialty courses, such as cancer genetics and invertebrate biology, are simply not taught.

On a recent afternoon, about 400 students squeezed into Mahar for Phillis’s introductory biology class. An overhead screen flanked by two smaller flat-screen televisions displayed a diagram of fatty acid chains.

Every few minutes, students were asked to answer multiple-choice questions displayed on the screens by pressing a button on a handheld device that resembled a remote control. It is the only way for Phillis to gauge how much of the material students understand when many are too intimidated to speak up in such a large class.

“The size of the class challenges my ability to ramp up the difficulty and slows my ability to move forward,’’ said Phillis, who also teaches a more intimate version of the class to 48 honor students, every one of whom he knows by name.

“Great education can be available here, but certainly not with a student-faculty ratio that keeps slipping in the wrong direction,’’ said Phillis, president of the faculty union.

Quantity and quality Five years ago, UMass instituted a plan to hire 250 additional tenure-track professors by 2010. So far, it has only managed to increase the total by 61.

Many of the tenured faculty who have retired or resigned have been replaced by adjunct instructors, who now make up nearly a fifth of full-time faculty, compared with 7 percent two decades ago.

UMass students today, particularly underclassmen, are less likely to be taught by a permanent faculty member. Last academic year, tenure-system faculty taught just 45 percent of undergraduate courses; adjuncts taught 35 percent, and graduate teaching assistants taught the remaining 20 percent, according to university data.

UMass this year also increased the number of credits per class for some courses that satisfy graduation requirements, reducing the number of courses students need to graduate. The higher-credit classes are supposed to be more rigorous, but some faculty say the additional work often takes the form of online discussions or computer-graded homework.

“It is clearly driven, even if they don’t say so, as an effort to reduce the number of faculty you need to teach the same number of students,’’ said Robert Zussman, a sociology professor. “The expectation has cheapened.’’

Professors say they are trying their best to cope. Many routinely allow more students into a class than the maximum occupancy posted in a room, banking on the fact that not everyone will show up.

Classics professor Debbie Felton has allowed upwards of 490 students into a 469-person Greek mythology class, and still had to turn away dozens who came the first weeks of class, hoping for a break.

“I get a number of e-mails from students saying, ‘Please, I’m a senior. Let me into your class,’ ’’ Felton said. “But I just can’t. It’s already overenrolled.’’

The opening of a new science complex has allowed some teachers, like chemistry professor Paul Lahti, to use technology to teach as many students as needed, though not in the same room.

“Our goal in chemistry remains a seat for every student,’’ Lahti said, even if that means watching a piped-in lecture occurring in an adjoining room, a method Lahti employed last year for an organic chemistry class.

“We’ve struggled philosophically,’’ Lahti said. “Is it critical that every student have a seat in every lecture section?’’

An online option At 9:45 p.m. on a recent Wednesday, senior Ellen Trapp settled into her dorm room bed to watch one of her favorite professors on her computer. The class — Communications 288: Gender, Sex and Representation — was recorded last year.

The professor, Sut Jhally, leaned on a lectern and spoke about the representation of gays on television. An 1 hour, 15 minute lecture will often take Trapp more than two hours to watch because she frequently pauses to take notes and rewinds to make sure she understands the points Jhally is making.

“I feel like I’m in a lecture hall because this is exactly what I would see — the board and the teacher at the front,’’ Trapp said. “But all from the comfort of my own bed.’’

Jhally began taping his lectures six years ago so more students would have access to his courses. The lecture hall he teaches in is limited to 230 students. Online, with lessons re-recorded every three to four years, he said he can reach 1,300.

Students perform just as well in online courses as they do in traditional classes, university officials said, and more than 1,000 undergraduates are enrolled in online courses this fall. In addition, many are taking new hybrid courses in computer science, biology, calculus, and physics, which combine traditional lectures with online instruction.

“I tell kids on the first day to come to class only if they want to,’’ said Robert Moll, a computer science professor. Fewer than half show up to his introduction to Java programming class.

Students who attend his lectures say they come to get their questions answered. Moll is so busy he has to delegate the answering of many e-mailed questions.

“If I can answer it in 15 seconds, what the hell, I’ll get back to you,’’ he said. “But if they say, ‘I’m lost. I don’t understand a concept,’ I say, ‘Go see a TA.’ ’’

Moll has written an interactive online textbook for students to teach themselves computer science concepts. Practice programming problems are embedded throughout the text. Students submit their solutions, which are automatically graded on a remote server that also tracks each individual’s performance.

“The more cynical view from faculty, not without some merit, is that this is a way for the university to live with diminished faculty numbers,’’ he said. “There is some truth to it. But as an educator, I sort of believe in this do-it-yourself approach.’’

Tracy Jan can be reached at