Students, faculty to reap big benefits from smaller classes in coming years

Erin Ghere

History professor Barbara Welke has taught both large and small classes, but said she prefers the latter.
Smaller classes benefit both students and faculty, she said. Professors can tell when their students understand the material and can learn more from them, and students can participate in interactive discussions and in active, critical thinking and questioning with other students.
“Just as large classes are alienating to students, I think they’re alienating for faculty,” she said.
With funding from the state secured, University administrators are on to the business of granting Welke’s wish for smaller class sizes.
When the 1999 legislative session ended May 17, the University was left with $103 million of the $198 million officials had requested in their biennial capital funding bid. The Legislature earmarked $15 million for University undergraduate initiatives. On odd years, the University gets money for maintenance tasks, like compensation and building upkeep, while on even years, new building projects are funded.
Although University President Mark Yudof had requested more than $30 million for the initiative, officials were pleased with the funding, which was also $5 million less than what Gov. Jesse Ventura recommended. Ventura signed the bill into law Tuesday evening.
With the funding, officials hope to enrich the experience of the “state’s best prepared undergraduate students,” according to the budget request.
“The Legislature affirmed the priorities of the University,” said Robert Bruininks, University vice president and provost. “The legislature made an investment to improve the undergraduate experience”
And one way to do that is lessen the number of students in classes, as proposed in Yudof’s budget.
A possible way to facilitate that is hiring new faculty to teach the added courses. If new faculty members are hired, they most likely won’t be until the 2000-2001 school year, said Richard Pfutzenreuter, University chief financial advisor, although no decisions have been made yet.
However, Welke said that in order for a change to be made, students have to see the appeal of smaller classes on discrete topics, as well as the University offering them. Smaller classes often mean more student responsibility for homework and reading, but add more to the learning experience.
“It’s next to impossible to be invisible in a class of 20 or even 30,” she said.
Final decisions regarding new faculty will be made over the summer and next fall, Pfutzenreuter said.
Yudof’s budget also proposed expanding programs which allow students to participate in research activities, service-learning projects and mentor relationships. Internship opportunities, which are handled through the Office of Special Learning Opportunities, will also be more readily available.
The final piece of the undergraduate initiative is making advising part of students’ lives earlier in their University careers. The administration’s goal is to integrate academic advising and career development into the beginning of students’ undergraduate experiences.
The University’s total five-tier allocation takes into consideration undergraduate experiences as well as faculty pay, facility repairs and University extension and community programs. Funding for Yudof’s fifth initiative is included in the Legislature’s health and human services bill, through an endowment created with tobacco settlement funds. This will give the University’s Academic Health Center about $16 million over the next two years.