Dwindling enrollment in the International Relations department led the college of Creative and Liberal Arts to require the IR department to cut sections of a capstone class this summer in an effort to ensure adequate enrollment during the regular school year.
Last spring, administrators instructed the IR department to cancel one of its three sections of the six-credit, Senior Thesis in International Relations course (IR 550), which IR majors need to take to graduate.
“Under the University’s current budget model, classes that do not meet certain enrollment thresholds must be canceled,” IR Office Coordinator Katie Murphy told Xpress in an email. “Fortunately, we were able to plead with the higher-ups and keep the class on the schedule [last spring]. We were not so lucky in fall 2018.”
Department chair Mahmood Monshipouri was concerned about the impacts the fall cancellation of IR 550 could have on students trying to graduate, though, and when the first two sections filled to capacity, he took matters into his own hands. He decided to offer an additional section of the course without compensation.
“Look, I’m the chair,” Monshipouri said. “There are five students left that have to graduate and they cannot come back. Something [had] to be done about it.”
The department offered IR 550 over the summer in past years as a way to supplement course offerings, but back then IR had the enrollment numbers to justify the additional summer courses.
Based on data from the Office of Institutional Research, the IR department’s enrollment numbers have been declining steadily for six years. In 2012, 367 students were declared as undergraduate IR majors, but by Fall 2018 that number had dropped to 227.
And while enrollment in many departments at SF State — like political science, cinema, engineering and computer science — is trending upward, The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reports a general decline in enrollment in institutes of higher education overall. Between spring 2014 and spring 2018, enrollment across all sectors of higher education dropped 8.2 percent.
California Faculty Association chapter President James Martel told Xpress it is uncommon for professors to have to volunteer to teach a class without pay under any circumstances.
“The whole point of the collective bargaining agreement is to protect faculty from having to do unpaid labor,” Martel said. “Which in turn also protects students who benefit from having faculty with living wages”
Murphy said students are not the only stakeholders when it comes to canceled classes. The vacuum created by a cut class can have a cascading effect on faculty as well.
“As an instructor, canceled classes can have devastating financial and professional consequences,” Murphy said. “If a course taught by a tenure-line professor is canceled, the professor is reassigned to classes scheduled to be taught by a lecturer… this entails extra and often last-minute class prep, possibly for a subject outside of their areas of expertise.”
And the lecturer in such a situation is even worse off, she said, because they lose out on teaching a class at all, which means a reduction in pay and, in the worst cases, a loss of health benefits.
Professor Lucia Volk, who teaches Middle Eastern studies in the IR department, was scheduled to teach IR 550 in fall semester, but as a result of low enrollment her section was cut from the schedule shortly before the semester began.
In her case, the timing was such that no faculty members were displaced because another instructor went on maternity leave at the same time.
“It was stressful for me to reorganize my schedule at short notice and prepare new classes that I had not expected to teach and that I had never taught before,” Volk said. “[Displacing another instructor] would have been even more stressful.”
In an effort to minimize the impacts on faculty from the shrinking enrollment numbers, the IR department decided to remove IR 550 from the summer semester. The department determined that the popularity of the course in the summer was siphoning off enrollment in the course throughout the rest of the year.
“We have decided that maybe it’s in the best interest of the department that we not offer 550 [in the] summer time,” Monshipouri said. “[Instead] we [are] offering [it] regularly in the fall and the spring so that we don’t have a situation where we have to tell a professor, ‘I’m sorry, you can’t teach them.’”
The department’s plan appears to have worked. Associate Dean of Liberal and Creative Arts Troi Carleton reports that two sections of IR 550 offered this spring each have full enrollment.
“No IR classes were canceled for spring 2019,” Carleton said. “We are set to meet student demand.”