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Taking stock in a department, sophomores select their majors

If selecting a major is anything like Wall Street, then the market this year was bullish. Gains led losses for a sophomore class that was larger than its immediate predecessors, and the University's four largest blue chip monoliths — history, politics, English and economics — continued to secure about 40 percent of the shares.

While the trend of students flocking to these larger departments is not new, administrators are often puzzled by the disproportionate distribution of majors. Why does one of the nation's most well-known and respected Germanic languages departments attract only four concentrators, while the politics department — which has been plagued by faculty attrition in recent years — draws more than 100 sophomores?


In sum, almost two-thirds of the University's 34 departments — which range from chemical engineering to theater and dance — have fewer than 28 concentrators each.

Students in the University's relatively small anthropology department enjoy a high faculty-to-student ratio, according to chair Lawrence Rosen. With this year's near-tripling of anthropology majors from 10 to 27, that ratio seems to be at risk, but administrators say they expect to buffer the increase with a near-doubling in the size of the department's full-time faculty.

"We have a great faculty and student ratio, with a lot of individual attention," Rosen said. "That will not change since we are moving to replace a few half-time professors, those on phased retirement, with full-time professors."

Doing the numbers

Attracting 109 sophomores, history was the most popular department for the second consecutive year, with politics close behind, drawing 108 new majors. English gained 12 students more than last year for a total of 100.

Economics — which drew 136 members from the Class of 2001 — has been experiencing a decline in student interest in the last two years, and attracted only 73 sophomores this year.

At the other end of the spectrum, astrophysical sciences and Slavic languages and literatures drew one student each.


Though the economics department's sophomore class is markedly smaller than previous classes, the decrease in concentrators might provide the economics department with some much-needed relief.

As the number of economics majors skyrocketed in recent years, the department's resources have been strained, forcing it to depend on graduate students to act as advisers for junior papers with greater frequency than in most other departments.

"The worry is that because our enrollment increased so much and the faculty has not increased so much, the overall quality of education in economics has diminished," economics chair Mark Watson said.

An overextended faculty is not a concern for the astrophysics department, however, and chair Scott Tremaine said he hopes his department will attract more students from the Class of 2003.

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"I think we are obviously concerned, but we have been monitoring other schools, and the number of enrollment has been increasing across the country," Tremaine said. "Because our department is very small, the fluctuations are greatly felt."