The New Size of Critical Mass

January 16, 2007

In recent years, many liberal arts colleges have inched upwards in size, with student bodies that were once 1,200 hitting 1,500. Officials cite a number of reasons -- both educational and economic -- for why the smaller sizes don't work as they once did.

Now it appears that similar growth spurts are hitting research universities that are on the small side for that sector. The University of Rochester is making plans to increase its faculty size and undergraduate enrollment by about one-fourth. Rice University, one of the few research universities smaller than Rochester, is in the process of increasing its undergraduate enrollment to 3,800, an increase of 30 percent.

"Private research universities tend to be smaller than publics, but there is a real liability today in being too small," said Roger L. Geiger, professor of education at Pennsylvania State University and author of Research and Relevant Knowledge: American Research Universities Since World War II. "I think that particularly in the sciences, with the emphasis on interdisciplinary work, if you have small departments, you simply cut down on the possibilities."

Many of the cutting-edge interdisciplinary fields these days -- such as biotechnology and nanotechnology -- require a scale for their programs and those of the traditional disciplines on which they build, Geiger said. As long as universities can attract the students they want, expansion can be "a win-win situation," he said.

At Rochester, the expansion is being planned for the College of Arts, Sciences and Engineering, which could see its faculty grow from 320 to 400 and its enrollments increase from 4,000 to 5,000. When Joel Seligman became president in 2005, he started a strategic planning process and a consensus quickly emerged that growth was in order. During the 1990s, Rochester cut its enrollments and generally tried to operate under the philosophy that it would be better off doing fewer things, for fewer students.

"But being unusually small -- our faculty is not much more than half that of peer schools -- limits the scope of our programs and departments," said Peter Lennie, dean of the College of Arts, Sciences and Engineering.

While plans for expansion aren't settled, Lennie and others stressed that it wouldn't be across-the-board growth. Among the areas Lennie said are possible for focus include "the systematic study and engagement with the world outside the United States," which could take the form of area studies, or support for international initiatives in a variety of departments. Such growth would probably be linked to encouraging more Rochester students to study abroad, and to recruiting more foreign students.

Rochester has historically been stronger in the sciences and the harder social sciences, and Lennie said it was important to use the expansion to bolster the humanities and to promote links that would involve arts, humanities and science professors. Working with the university's Eastman School of Music, he said, Rochester might create broad programs on sound and music -- from performance to cognitive science to signal processing.

Nicholas P. Bigelow, a physics professor and chair of the Faculty Senate, said that many professors were interested in creating programs that link arts and sciences with Eastman and with the university's medical school. Study of the brain was the type of broad research he could see promoted by the expansion.

Bigelow and others said that the one concern that has been expressed about the plan is that Rochester might lose some of the close interaction among professors and between faculty members and students. An editorial in the student paper said that many current students were attracted to Rochester precisely because it is smaller than institutions with similar programs.

Even sharing those concerns, Bigelow said that there were significant gains to growth. For departments like his that offer both undergraduate and graduate instruction, just offering the courses required for both groups of students imposes significant demands. And to get top-of-the-line facilities for research in areas like nanoscience, Bigelow said, you can't just have a few scattered faculty members, but need a critical mass that is hard to find at a smaller university.

One reason faculty members are behind the expansion, Bigelow said, is confidence in the student body quality. As one who works with undergraduates in his lab all the time, "I can see that the quality is increasing all the time," he said. More than reports on SAT averages, that experience makes him believe the university can attract more students and keep quality high.

While it's natural to have some anxiety about change, Bigelow said that most professors were excited about being able, for the first time in more than a decade, to think about dramatic changes or improvements that aren't possible when you can't grow. "When you take away the zero sum constraint, it gets exciting," he said.

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