With next year’s enrollment numbers already predicting a large entering freshman class, Knox’s ability to maintain its traditional 12:1 student to faculty ratio has been called into question.
However, Dean of the College and Vice President of Academic Affairs Lawrence Breitborde said that maintaining the 12:1 ratio and the small class sizes students seek is a major priority for the college.
“The charge I have from the Board of Trustees is to staff the college with a 12:1 ratio,” Breitborde said. “The goals for next year are for a very large entering class but that’s to make up for a very large graduating class. You don’t just look at the entering class, you look at the overall size.”
Knox’s small class sizes and celebrated 12:1 ratio has traditionally been a major selling point to prospective students.
“I signed up to be at this school for small class sizes,” senior Michael Oelkers said. “For the most part, I’ve had small classes, or at least manageable classes. At the upper level, it’s generally that and it’s nice. But I’ve been in at least one class where we had to get desks from another room.”
Oelkers noted the educational benefit of having fewer people enrolled in each class.
“As classes get larger […] you can hide,” Oelkers said. “Small classes pull you out, for better or worse. I believe in smaller classes, people are willing to participate. You get to know people better. It’s not like being in a roomful of strangers.”
Breitborde anticipated maintaining those smaller class sizes in years to come.
“We expect to be approximately the same size and have approximately the same faculty,” he said. “We’ve been on target.”
In the past several years, Knox has consistently maintained its student to faculty ratio, keeping it between 11.8 and 12.2 at all times. Breitborde explained the ratio was calculated not by simply counting faculty and students but rather factoring in their course loads. A faculty member who teaches six courses a year is counted as one faculty; someone who teaches only three would be counted as half a faculty member. Students are factored in the same way depending on their credit enrollment.
Despite this ratio, some students expressed concern over seemingly large class sizes, especially in introductory courses.
“I didn’t come to Knox College for 85-people auditoriums and that’s what you find in intro biology courses,” said sophomore Jamie Jang. Oelkers described the enrollment in his introductory drawing course as being in the high teens and felt it could have benefited from fewer students.
Breitborde acknowledged that some classes are larger than others.
“There are places where we’ve been having some significant enrollment pressure,” he said, citing the biology and environmental studies departments as two examples.
Breitborde argued that part of this problem comes from the fact that “from year to year, student interest in courses has changed […] the places where we get enrollment pressure can vary over time.”
Breitborde said the college addresses this challenge by hiring visiting faculty. Rather than striving to make every line tenured, which does not allow for flexibility when other departments experience an increase in student demand, some new positions are “through permanent faculty and some have been through visiting faculty.”
“[Visiting faculty] bring in some new expertise and opportunities for students they wouldn’t otherwise have,” Breitborde said. He pointed out that several of the courses offered this year, such as Environmental Health, Archeology and Musical Emotions were unique to the curriculum and taught by visiting professors.
However, “the scope of expectations for visitors isn’t the same,” said Breitborde, saying visiting faculty are not expected to be involved in things such as honors research to the extent permanent faculty are. Although he acknowledged this can place greater demands on permanent faculty members, he was consistently impressed with how visiting faculty embraced their roles and said they often do far more than is expected.
“Most of the visiting faculty want to be at small liberal arts colleges, so they threw themselves into it,” he said. “We’re really fortunate that the visitors we hire […] want the full experience of a place like this.”
Breitborde also argued that appreciating a faculty member’s contribution required looking past the 12:1 ratio.
“If you talk to any faculty member, they’ll say they spend more time on academic affairs with students outside of class than in and we don’t want to jeopardize that,” he said.
Oelkers pointed out that a student’s relationship with professors was also affected by things such as extracurricular activities, noting his advisor is also his voice and choir teacher. Although he would be “suspicious” if class sizes increased to any great extent, Oelkers was happy overall with his decision of Knox.
“I was also looking at other universities that were larger,” he said. “Retrospectively, I’m extremely glad I came to a place with smaller classes […] if there’s too many people in the room and I can’t be engaged, it’s not good.”
“All my classes are small. Human Origins is really big but that’s because it’s a lecture class and everyone wants to take it,” said sophomore Clara Volker.
Overall, despite some problem areas, Breitborde was confident the 12:1 ratio could be maintained and noted that the biology and environmental studies departments will likely have visiting faculty hired. Next year, the college is also adding a permanent position in the Spanish department as well as its first professor of religion and culture studies.
“We’ve run out of faculty offices because we’ve hired more faculty to teach!” said Breitborde.