Despite a 35 percent increase in Arts and Sciences and Engineering student enrollment over the past decade, the number of usable classroom spaces on campus has largely remained fixed. This trend has led to an increase in the number of classes held on Fridays and Saturdays, and has placed the burden of bargaining for space onto individual departments.
The Faculty of the Arts and Sciences has perennially found itself in a state of financial insecurity, which some faculty say has been exacerbated by the strain of big-scale University projects started during President Lee Bollinger’s term, most notably the multibillion-dollar Manhattanville campus. A significant part of the strain has been felt by the University’s facilities—facing pressure from a small budget, the constraints of New York City, and a continuously growing student body, the number of available classrooms and their size have remained largely unchanged over the past decade.
According to University Registrar Barry Kane, who assigns courses their classrooms each semester, the space limitation has been a long-standing issue.
“This is not a new situation for Columbia, this has existed for a long time… We’re overlaying [the increase in enrollment] onto a very static classroom inventory. There’s your issue.”
But at a University Senate plenary in October, the Information and Communications Technology subcommittee—responsible for reviewing University policy on technology systems and network infrastructure— presented an annual report highlighting the growing limitations of Columbia classrooms, a problem of increasing urgency.
“The future for the supply of classroom space is beset with obstacles for which no solution is in sight: the unceasing increase in student enrollments year upon year, and the long-term constraints on Columbia’s supply of space, even with the current expansion into Manhattanville and the freeing up of Uris Hall in a few years [sic],” the report said.
The need for more space has left the Registrar and department administrators scrambling at the start of each semester, searching for classroom space off-campus or from other departments, and holding small classes in offices and rooms without proper teaching equipment.
As a result of the increasing constraint on physical space, undergraduate classes are held off-campus in Union Theological Seminary and Riverside Church, and department-controlled spaces at Barnard, Teachers College, the School of Social Work, the Journalism School, and the Law School.
For students, the shortages mean that classes will continue to be held earlier in the morning, later in the evening, and on off days such as Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.
In light of such concerns, Bollinger has promised that both the Manhattanville campus and Uris Hall—which will be vacated by the Business school in 2020—will open significant space for Arts and Sciences faculty.
But Uris, in need of costly renovation, is years away from having modern classrooms fully equipped to hold classes, according to co-chair of the Uris Visions Committee, Jean Howard. The building will also only add around 16 new classrooms.
“We should go a long way to fix the shortage by adding 16 classrooms in Uris. But one building cannot relieve all the space needs of all departments scattered across campus, and probably won’t fix the entire classroom crisis,” Howard said.
Each semester, the Registrar sends department administrators a list of classes for which there are no available classrooms, and encourages them to offer sequestered, or reserved, space to courses within their or other departments. Kane described the process of appealing to departments for help finding extra space as “just another step in the process of getting to the point where every course has a location.”
John Donaldson, the Chair of the Campus Planning and Physical Development Senate subcommittee, described the stock of classrooms as “barely enough,” even though the University utilizes “pretty much every classroom available [in] Morningside Heights.” Currently, the process of assigning classrooms requires a meticulous, multi-stage process for departments involving middle-level administration mediators and bargaining for space between the Registrar and multiple departments.
“That means that if at some unexpected time, a department wants to have a seminar, they may have trouble getting a room, and I think this is generally true of urban campuses where it’s so hard to build new things,” Donaldson said.
Kane confirmed that to account for the sharp increase in students, there has been an increase in early morning and evening classes, and a slight increase in the number of courses held on Fridays and Saturdays. In 2012, the earliest class slot was moved from 9:10 a.m. to 8:40 a.m. to accomodate for the space crunch, and the latest class slot was moved from 8:55 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Kane said that despite minor additions to the classroom inventory including a new lecture hall in the former Chemistry library, the University lacks sufficient lecture space, and that he has to schedule fewer large courses at peak hours.
“You have classroom problems when you have too many courses meeting at a particular day and time. We don’t want to be looking at a situation with too many courses that require large lecture spaces because we simply don’t have the room,” Kane said.
Theo Burke, CC ’20, and Raayan Mohtashemi, SEAS ’21, take Probability Theory this semester on Saturdays from 10:10 a.m. to 12:40 p.m., a required class for their majors. Burke also pointed out that the Statistics department is granted little space, housed off-campus within the Columbia School of Social Work on Amsterdam Avenue between 121st and 123rd street. Six other statistics classes on Vergil take place on Saturday this semester.
Mohtashemi expressed concerns about extending the academic week into students’ non-academic time.
“There’s this overall sense that to be at a school at Columbia, your life revolves around your academic life, and this [class] extends the week one more day. I imagine for other people that are working jobs on weekends, that’s another impact,” Mohtashemi said.
Additionally, due to the timeframe of the planning of classroom configurations, the Registrar’s office may not be able to predict the technological capacity of certain classrooms. According to Kane, the first priority is ensuring that classrooms are the right size for the number of students enrolled in the course, but other parameters may fall behind. Further, many other decisions are made after the start of classes.
In the fall semester, Zuleyha Colak, a lecturer and coordinator for the Turkish language program at MESAAS, held a class of thirteen students in her office until another language professor in the department offered Colak her classroom. This semester, she didn’t know if one of her courses would have a classroom until the fourth day of classes, and even then the location displayed as “TBA” on SSOL.
“You cannot rely on coincidence,” Colak said.
Frederick E. Woodbridge Professor of Philosophy David Albert, who teaches Literature Humanities in the basement of Union Theological Seminary needs just a blackboard, and he’d “like the students to have comfortable places to sit.” But while a round-table seminar might have minimal needs for classrooms, language and science courses oftentimes need specific audio-visual equipment, which is increasingly utilized by professors of various departments to integrate media into their curricula and enhance students’ educational experience.
Director of Academic Administration and Finance for MESAAS Jessica Rechtschaffer called some classroom spaces “wholly inadequate in terms of configuration,” and said professors have had to carry AV equipment between classes, and make long commutes between consecutive class slots.
“We have had situations where it hasn’t been a happy situation for the professor,” Rechtschaffer said.
Other variables, such as language placement and fluctuating enrollment, affect the “true number” of students in small seminars and language courses in particular.
Donaldson highlighted that the space constraint could ultimately alter the types of courses Columbia is able to offer.
“The number of classrooms available on the Morningside campus has been static. For courses that cannot be reasonably conducted with large classes, it means the need for more classrooms and [then] for classes that seem to work well for large numbers of students,” Donaldson said.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Uris would have 12 classrooms, when in reality it will have 16. Spectator regrets this error.