Partly in response to budget problems, UCLA has retreated from a graduation requirement that most students must take at least one seminar-style class with a small enrollment and significant interaction with the professor.
Some seniors have complained that not enough such seminars were offered and that they had been unable to find spots in these lower-division classes, which are typically designed for about 20 students and have a discussion format very different from large lecture hall courses.
As a result of the shortage, faculty leaders of UCLA's College of Letters and Science, which enrolls about 85% of the university's undergraduates, recently voted to suspend the seminar requirement. The change will be in effect for at least the next four years, starting with students who are scheduled to graduate this winter.
"We now have a backlog of students who would not graduate unless we could offer many, many more seminars. And we just don't have the resources to do that," said Judith Smith, vice provost for undergraduate education. However, she said the requirement was suspended, not revoked, and could be reinstated for a future freshman class.
Although budget cuts and rising freshman enrollment helped cause the shortage, other factors also played a role, Smith said. Some faculty had come to question the value of lower-division seminars, saying students often don't have enough previous courses and expertise in a topic to allow useful class discussions. The college also may switch some funding to small classes for seniors to produce a final project or paper in their majors.
Previously, the college mandated that one of its 10 general education requirements be a small seminar class. Even with the seminar rule suspended, the school will still require the same number of general education courses.
UCLA administrators said students still have plenty of chances to take intimate-scale classes over their four years, and most do. For example, about half of current freshmen are enrolled in a "cluster program" of three classes in which they study themes such as global environment or racial relations over the course of a year, ending with a small seminar. And many upper-division classes, science labs and foreign-language courses also aim at small class sizes.
"For students who really want that opportunity, there are ways in which they can get it," said M. Gregory Kendrick, director of the freshman cluster program.
The backlog of seniors fulfilling the seminar requirement caused difficulties for younger students. Some seniors met the rule at the last minute by taking small writing courses. However, that shift took space from underclassmen who need those courses for another requirement, officials said.
At the same time, the writing program is anticipating that it may have to eliminate 30 of its 220 sections because of budget cuts, according to its director, Bruce Beiderwell.
The suspension of the seminar requirement will help some students graduate on time but is not something to celebrate, Beiderwell said. "Any suspended rule for economic necessity is highly unfortunate," he said. "It's a road I don't think anyone wants to go down."
Student leaders also had mixed reactions.
It will come as a relief to graduating seniors who have not yet met the requirement and will lift a burden from other students, said undergraduate student body President Homaira Hosseini. But students are likely to worry about further course cutbacks if the state reduces the university's funding as a result of the current economic crisis, she said.
"It's a bad foreshadowing," she said.