Pomona Natural Sciences Manage Rising Enrollments

(Dominic Frempong  • The Student Life)Natural science departments and programs at Pomona College have experienced massive growth in recent years. In 2005, natural sciences accounted for 28 percent of majors completed at Pomona, or 112 completed majors; by 2016, they accounted for 49 percent of all majors completed, or 204 completed majors, according to data published on Pomona’s website. 

At Pomona, the natural science designation applies to sciences, computer science, and mathematics.

“This increase reflects national trends, and so it is not surprising that we have seen this increase at Pomona College,” Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the College Audrey Bilger wrote in an email to TSL. “The challenge for us at Pomona is to encourage the exploration, growth, and discovery that make a liberal arts education so special.”

The natural science departments have had to adjust course offerings and class loads and add faculty to keep pace with their growing sizes, but some faculty say that Pomona has accommodated their needs. Various departments have added additional course sections, especially introductory ones.

“We now offer more sections of certain courses in an attempt to accommodate student demand,” computer science chair Tzu-Yi Chen wrote in an email to TSL. “For example, while we used to offer only one section of the second course in our major each year, this year we are offering four sections."

Other natural science departments have also hired temporary and visiting faculty to teach the new sections. Permanent faculty, like biology chair André Cavalcanti, said that Pomona has generally accommodated additional staffing needs, but hiring visiting faculty can be challenging.

“The college has made adjustments to accommodate growth when and where possible,” Bilger wrote. “One of the factors that the Faculty Position Advisory Committee takes into account when recommending possible hires within departments is the number of majors.”

Some departments — like chemistry, for instance — have been limited in the amount of permanent faculty they can add due to constraints on laboratory space. However, Pomona has provided the necessary resources to add permanent faculty where possible.

“We are undergoing a ... $4.5 million renovation to build a research lab [and teaching lab] for [Nicholas] Ball, who joined us as our first inorganic chemist,” Chemistry chair Daniel O’Leary said. “By adding [Ball], all of the subfields of chemistry are now present … but that came at some investment by the college, and we’re grateful for the fact that they’re allowing us to do that.”

Other departments have also had to increase class sizes and hours worked by professors to keep pace with increasing enrollment.

“We’ve put in more hours to accommodate larger classes—we now routinely have enrollments of around 30 in multiple sections of calculus, linear algebra, and statistics, and up to 50 and 60 in some of our single-section, upper-level classes—and more senior thesis advisees,” mathematics chair Ghassan Sarkis wrote in an email to TSL.

However, other professors said that their departments have reached their enrollment limits and will need additional resources if they continue to grow at the current rate.

“With an average of seven theses each, we feel pretty swamped with the existing thesis supervision workload," neuroscience chair Karl Johnson wrote in an email to TSL. "I don’t believe we could grow the major much larger than it currently is without hiring new faculty."

According to Sarkis, the mathematics department is also facing similar challenges and needs additional resources to continue to grow.

“The increase in resources hasn’t been quite in step with the increase in demand,” Sarkis wrote. “We understand that resources are finite even at a place like Pomona, and we continue to work with the administration … in order to find long-term solutions that make sense.”

Bilger anticipates that natural sciences enrollments will level off, if not decrease, in the coming years.

“I predict that in the coming years, we are likely to see a resurgence of interest in social sciences and arts and humanities," Bilger wrote. "Ultimately, it is our hope that Pomona students will find that a liberal arts education provides them with a set of skills that transcend any major."