• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


The Section Dance

Which sections will be closed and which will run?

August 18, 2019

Some colleges have started the semester already, but in deference to Jersey Shore tourism season, we don’t start until after Labor Day. That means that the deans, department chairs and I are doing the annual section dance. Which sections will be closed and which will run?

I’m old enough to remember when the section dance worked differently. Back when enrollments were booming, it was mostly about finding rooms and professors with which to add sections. The problem of coordination was mostly about shoehorning in more people. With declining enrollments, the opposite is true; we’re trying to decide which sections will survive and which will be closed.

In a more perfect world, of course, supply and demand would be closely enough aligned that we’d get it right the first time. But enrollments change every single year. That’s the effect of having open admissions. A selective college can decide how many seats it wants to fill, then admit enough to get that. Sometimes it guesstimates the yield incorrectly -- Virginia Tech did that this year -- but the basic principle holds. But our mission forbids selectivity. Instead, we admit until we run out of time, space or people, whichever comes first.

This year, it will probably be time.

It’s a frustrating dance, because it necessarily involves balancing competing goods against each other.

Run too many small sections, and the budget collapses. Dividing too few students among too many sections drives up instructional costs. After years upon years of flat funding and rising health insurance costs, that’s just not a tenable model.

Close too many small sections, and the budget collapses because you’ve turned away too many students. (That’s because some percentage of students who have a class closed out from under them don’t make the switch to another time slot.) Also, the faculty get upset because each is convinced that their individual section would have run if only it had been given more time. That can’t be disproved in the absence of a working time machine, so it’s hard to dismiss.

But the longer you wait to cancel, the greater the disruption to everyone involved. Other sections fill, and students (and, frequently, adjuncts) make plans for other jobs, childcare and transportation based on the assumption of a particular schedule. Waiting until the last possible moment in hopes that enrollments will tick up may seem like the humane thing to do, but it imposes outsize costs on everyone involved when it doesn’t work. At a certain point, you have to just make the call and hope for the best.

If enrollment were relatively stable from year to year, it would be easier to make a schedule and stick to it. But that hasn’t been true for years. And the overall enrollment number masks significant shifts within, such as the growth of online enrollments and the decline of evening sections. Those internal shifts impose costs of their own. As tempting as it would be to just make a sweeping declaration of a minimum number for a class to run and be done with it, we have more constraints than that. A given section is low, but it’s required for graduation from a program and it’s the only evening section. Or we’re running three sections -- the first two are full and the third has five students. Or it’s the only section of that course, so closing it would mean effectively eliminating the course entirely. What may look from the outside like inconsistency is, in fact, recognition that the picture isn’t as simple as a clean minimum would imply. For all that we like to talk about algorithms, there’s some professional judgment involved.

Finally, of course, there’s Yogi Berra’s observation that it’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future. Will the Tuesday morning section of Sanskrit pick up three more students in time? We can guess, based on past years and knowledge of trends, but there’s an inescapable element of randomness at the micro level. Sometimes we guess wrong and we allow a class to run that never reaches the number we thought it would. As a former colleague used to say, that’s the way the cookie bounces.

Absent an enrollment boom, the best solution would be a boost in operating funding sufficient to allow some smaller sections to run. Absent increases in either enrollment or funding, though, the dance continues.


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