I work at a public university in a state which has seen economic rough times more than good of late. We've made a lot of cuts at the university, and they've hurt. We've raised class sizes, put off building maintenance (and actual building). We've cut tenure lines and hired adjuncts. We have some great adjuncts, but they're not paid adequately and we don't ask them to do committee work and such (though sometimes they do anyway). We're not in an area with a lot of grad programs, so we can't just hire someone ABD to teach a class twice a week, either. People pretty much have to be living here or move here to teach for us. The area doesn't attract a lot of random PhDs.
We've pushed enrollments to the point where we edging into less effective teaching (or gone over the edge). For example, if research were to show that the ideal class size for teaching first year composition or writing is 15-20, then once you push over 20, you're likely to be educating each of those 21+ students a little less well. Our regular first year writing classes run 28-30 students; we all think this is more than ideal, but it's the balance we've managed to work out given budgeting and such. Physically, 28-30 people is fine in some classrooms, but very tight in the space of other classrooms. Science labs only have so many lab spots; computer labs only have so many computer stations.
Grading changes drastically when you add extra students to a writing class; that's obvious. It's less obvious how class activities change. I can still run a pretty good class discussion up to about 35 students (our lit class enrollments); much beyond that and my class discussions are less and less effective. Even at 35, a student who doesn't want to be noticed doesn't get called on much, especially if there are a few engaged and energetic students in the class. But if you want to do presentations of any sort, adding students makes that less and less manageable. Some group work seems to go well with any size class, while other sorts of group work don't.
(Classes that are too small are another issue, one that I've not come up against much.)
What I'm trying to get at is that we're running pretty lean.
We faculty folk got an email the other day, informing us that X first year students didn't attend summer orientation and so haven't registered, but all the classes of appropriate levels are full.
We're not an open enrollment university, so these students didn't suddenly decide to enroll at the last minute; the admissions folks have known the numbers since they got letters of intent way back in late spring. Thus, even if these X students had gone to orientation, classes would have filled up before the last X students in orientation got a chance to enroll.
In other words, someone didn't plan well way back in spring to reconcile the numbers of students with the classroom seats we need for those students. And, of course, those students don't just take one class, they average something between four and five classes a term. So that's 4X seats we need. And they should have known that last spring.
You know, last spring when they could have tried to hire on some extra adjuncts? Last spring when they could have offered instructors already on the payroll an overload class for extra pay?
But those solutions cost money.
So instead, this email asked us all to open our lower level classes for just one or two extra students. If everyone just adds a few spots, the email pleads, these students will have plenty of room.
Remember, though, we're already at (or beyond) the upper limit of class size for effective teaching; we've been there for many years. Each student I overload at this point likely makes the class less effective for every student. So it's not just a matter of my being willing to do extra grading work. It's a matter, to use the administrative lingo, of student outcomes. And it's all about students, right?
Want to guess how many times I've gotten similar emails?
Here's what I've never seen, though:
I've never seen an administrator stand up and say, "I'm responsible for making sure we have enough seats for all our entering students, but I didn't do a good job."
And so I've never seen an administrator stand up and say, "I didn't do my job well; here's how I'm going to do this job better next year. You can hold me accountable."
I can't say how much I would admire and respect an administrator who stood up and took responsibility and who then took responsibility for changing things so we don't do this every year.