Zach Donnenfield | Mustang News

The Cal Poly campus has not expanded its permanent lecture, lab or faculty office spaces since 2013 when the Warren J. Baker Center for Science and Mathematics (building 180) opened, but the total student population has increased almost 20 percent since then and the number of faculty has increased more than 10 percent. This has a direct bearing on both the student and faculty experience at Cal Poly.

For each of the past 10 years, the number of students has exceeded enrollment projections, resulting in space-related problems, such as over-packed classes and cramped offices.

According to Vice Provost for Enrollment Development James Maraviglia, the campus infrastructure is over capacity. Maraviglia was candid about the issue.

“We all know how stretched we are right now,” Maraviglia said. “We all know what that means to an institution, to a community, to students, to faculty, to staff.”

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Video by Nate Edelman

The scale of Cal Poly’s overcrowding

According to the California State University (CSU) Space and Facilities Database, a record of facilities and spaces on each CSU campus, Cal Poly’s total lecture and lab space is intended to accommodate about 16,516.7 full-time equivalent (FTE) students based on state standards. Currently, there are 21,527.6 FTE students enrolled — 30.34 percent more students than the campus’ instructional capacity is intended to accommodate based on state standards.

The campus FTE capacity is a complex calculation based on a number of factors, including how many hours per week rooms will be filled and how many seats will be filled while the room is in use. According to CSU policy, students are considered FTE if they are enrolled in 15 units or more.

Full-time equivalent (FTE) enrollment at Cal Poly has increased by 23.1 percent since 2010. Meanwhile, instructional space capacity has only increased by 0.1 percent in the same time frame.

This calculation ensures that campus space will be used effectively to the state’s standards but will not be overused. According to the space report, campus capacity is controlled at the state level as opposed to the university level.

However, according to university spokesperson Matt Lazier, Cal Poly tries to utilize its space differently than system-wide assumptions. This means Cal Poly is able to support more FTE students than the CSU calculation.

For example, according to Lazier, the Office of the Registrar schedules classes during a window that is double the amount of hours to be offered per CSU standards. Classes can be scheduled from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., creating a 14-hour window and totaling an available 70 hours a week. By contrast, CSU standards state classrooms should be occupied by classes 35 hours per week — or 7 hours per day — according to Lazier.

However, the scheduling window is different from each classroom’s actual utilization rate. According to the California State University Utilization Report for Fall 2017, Cal Poly’s lecture stations were utilized approximately 39.4 hours per week on average, with lab stations being utilized an average of 21.5 hours per week. This is an increase from Fall 2014 when Cal Poly’s lecture and lab station use were at CSU standards. Larger spaces are typically utilized more. For example, Cal Poly’s largest lecture hall, which seats 200-300 students, was utilized almost 55 hours per week as of Fall 2017.

Ultimately, this does not negate the problem of classes being scheduled at inconvenient times. For example, a professor may request that their class be scheduled to begin at 2 p.m., but classrooms with sufficient space may only be available at 8 a.m. or 8 p.m.

The disparity between campus capacity and student enrollment has a range of consequences: without adequate lecture and lab space, classes are scheduled in non-traditional spaces and outside the ideal hours of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Additionally, with the increase in faculty to keep up with the student population, professors are placed in dilapidated, cramped and/or makeshift offices.

Accommodating classes

According to Space and Facilities Utilization Manager Jeffrey Dumars, the disparity between campus capacity and population forces Facilities to improvise. This was especially true for the 2017-2018 school year, as Cal Poly had about 850 more new freshmen than expected in Fall 2017. To accommodate all the courses needed, Facilities and the Office of the Registrar had to house courses in what Dumars called “non-capacity space,” or rooms that are not classrooms, such as conference rooms. According to Lazier, Cal Poly used 116 non-capacity spaces for classes this academic year.

“To accommodate the increase in enrollment, we looked everywhere we could … we scoured the campus,” Dumars said.

This is more problematic in some departments than others. Computer science and software engineering professor Franz Kurfess said his classes and labs require very specific technological accommodations. Because some labs can only be hosted in specific spaces, these spaces are often overbooked.

“We have three of those labs and those labs are pretty much busy from 8 o’clock in the morning until 6 o’clock or 7 o’clock at night, and this makes it very difficult for our scheduler to accommodate all of the classes in those areas that need those labs,” Kurfess said.

According to Dumars, labs are department-controlled. This means that departments do not share their labs and have full control over who uses the labs and when. In spite of that, the number of labs has not increased in years, leading to the problems Kurfess faces.

Additionally, labs are intended to serve less students per week per station than lecture stations. Stations are defined as a desk with a chair or a tablet armchair. This is because labs often take more time to prepare in between sections. For example, as Dumars explained, a wet lab in biology must be cleaned up and reset in between sections, whereas lecture spaces can easily be used in back-to-back sections without any additional prep.

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Video by Bryce Aston

Another difference between lecture and lab spaces is that lecture spaces are all interdisciplinary, meaning they are not assigned to a specific department. This means that lecture rooms are shared between all departments on campus. This can cause unique issues as well.

English Department Chair Kathryn Rummell said her department faces challenges in using lecture spaces because they offer many General Education (GE) courses that all students are required to take — specifically GE A1 and A3. This gets especially difficult because the department commits to serving all students in GE A1 during their first year.

Rummell said the department offers between 150 and 190 courses per quarter, and they face a number of issues in scheduling these courses.

“The reality is that many of our classes have to be offered in early morning (7 a.m.) or evening (6-8 p.m., 8-10 p.m.) because of a lack of classroom space. And a further challenge with this is that it often means that several sections of the same course (GE A1, e.g.) are being offered at the same time (evenings), which reduces student choice,” Rummell wrote in an email to Mustang News. “The bottom line is that Cal Poly desperately needs more classrooms.”

One way the university is attempting to compensate for overcrowding is by converting non-traditional spaces, such as meeting rooms in residence halls, into instructional spaces. One specific case cited by Lazier was the conversion of an audio/video (AV) checkout room in Alan A. Erhart Agriculture (building 10) into a permanent instructional space.

“Advantages of these permanent and temporary instructional uses include adding inventory and flexibility,” Lazier wrote in an email to Mustang News. “Disadvantages include obvious tradeoffs, such as not having AV checkout in this area of campus … as well as the challenges of making sure the new temporary and permanent rooms function successfully as classrooms.”

Professors not only face challenges in finding the space to teach, they also face difficulties in fitting students into classrooms. Kurfess said he has seen waitlists of 50 to 70 students for almost all of his classes over the past few years. However, because of mandated classroom capacities, he is not able to enroll most of them.

It is not unusual for professors to have long wait lists with no room to accommodate those students. Many students ‘crash’ classes each quarter — or show up to the first few days of a class they are not officially enrolled in, hoping to get a space in the class — but are not always able to get these classes, even if they need them.

According to a poll conducted by Mustang News, 52.9 percent of the poll’s 104 respondents crashed one to three classes every quarter this year, while 14.4 percent crashed four or more classes on average and 32.7 percent crashed no classes.

Of respondents who crashed classes, 18.6 percent were not able to enroll in any of those classes.

English lecturer Alicia Moretti said she has seen this issue play out in her own courses.

“When I started teaching here [about six years ago], the entering class was about 3,700 students, and this year it was 5,200. Student interest in our programs has grown at the same rate, but the number of classes offered in my discipline has not changed,” Moretti wrote in an email to Mustang News. “This quarter, I had to turn away more than a dozen students from a 30-seat class that is only offered once a year with only one section, and these were all students who are required to take it. I know that some of those students are therefore not going to pursue their minors or certificates.”

Students who are unable to crash classes may face this consequence — or another. In the Mustang News survey regarding crashing classes, 21.2 percent of respondents said their graduation date had been delayed by these issues.

Faculty office spaces

With an increase in student populations comes an increase in the number of faculty and staff required. Many departments are struggling to find adequate office spaces for this influx of staff.

Christy McNeil Chand, a tenure-track professor for the Theatre & Dance Department, started teaching at Cal Poly in 2012. She said the original office space she was assigned had “a live black widow, multiple cockroaches, wasn’t well insulated and had windows, but it faced the building next to it.”

Even though it was conveniently located near her assigned courses, she preferred not to work in those conditions. Now, she sits in her 6-foot-by-6-foot office, tucked away in the Walter F. Dexter Building (building 34) on the opposite side of campus.

“When you work in a physically active program teaching dance for four hours straight, your body’s wrecked,” Chand said as she shifted her lamp to adjust the dim lighting in the room. “Having to walk uphill for 15 minutes to talk to my department chair or even check my mailbox isn’t all that awesome.”

She explained that last summer she received news of being assigned a portable office closer to her peers, but that fell through due to space concerns.

“That money was reallocated due to more students coming in,” she said. “So until then, this office has made for a really lonely job.”

Chand’s story is not an isolated one. Rummell said the English Department traditionally tried to keep their lecturer offices in Faculty Offices North (building 47), where the department is based. However, over the past five to eight years, Rummell said almost all lecturer offices have been located elsewhere.

Rummell, like Chand, said this prevents faculty members from connecting with one another.

The biggest challenge this presents is in developing a sense of community among department members,” Rummell wrote. “It’s difficult to cultivate community when you rarely, if ever, see your colleagues. In an ideal world, all English faculty would have offices near each other.”

To deal with the increase in faculty numbers — there were 1,294 faculty when Baker Science opened and 1,439 faculty this year — a number of portable offices have been installed in various locations such as outside Graphic Arts (building 26) and across the street from building 47. Additionally, some offices are being shared and other non-office spaces are being reassigned as offices.

Kurfess said he sees these trends in his own department.

“We’re at a stage right now where, for the next academic year, we will most likely have to put two tenure-track faculty in one office,” he said. “We have a very hard time offering these faculty research space that they need.”

Fortunately, this past quarter, their colleagues from the Electrical Engineering Department lent research space to their department for newly hired faculty members — a scenario that Kurfess said is happening more often.

The university’s goal is to adhere to the systemwide office standard of providing tenure-track faculty with a 110-square-foot office, according to Lazier. Further, if a room is greater than 160 square feet, it should be shared among faculty based on this standard.

“Most recent new construction has sought to provide tenure-track faculty individual offices and provide shared offices for part-time lectures and technical staff. However, office space is often dependent on the existing facilities and room size,” Lazier wrote.

The future of crowding at Cal Poly

Between the influx of students in Fall 2017 and the increasing number of faculty, Cal Poly is at its most crowded in recent history. However, Maraviglia said the school plans to turn that around within the next couple of years. The goal is to reduce the size of the student body to about 21,300 students.

However, according to Maraviglia, this will not necessarily mean smaller incoming classes. Rather, incoming classes will continue to increase or remain the same size. The difference will be made up in the increasing graduation rate of continuing students.

“We’re graduating more students, and we hope to continue that graduation increase. We’re pushing [an] 82-83-percent [six-year] graduation rate,” Maraviglia said. “Our goal is to jump that to … 90 percent.”

According to Lazier, Cal Poly also used a conservative admission strategy for the incoming freshman class to avoid a repeat of the inflated enrollment in Fall 2017. Cal Poly projects as much as a 300-student decrease in total enrollment for Fall 2018.

Additionally, according to Lazier, the university plans to update its Master Plan to potentially increase its capacity to 25,000 total students (22,250 FTE students) and add the following to the campus:

  • 1.1 million square feet of additional net academic space
  • 2,200 lecture seats
  • 1,000 lab stations
  • 900 graduate student research stations
  • Offices to support 400 additional faculty

Further, Cal Poly will continue to propose new capital projects to the CSU through annual Five Year Capital Improvement Plans with hopes to build new instructional and office spaces. In these plans, each CSU campus proposes new capital projects which they also must back up based on needed FTE space, according to Dumars. However, these plans are no guarantee of new buildings.

According to Lazier, the request for funding to construct office and instructional buildings as part of the plan was not funded by the CSU system this year, though Cal Poly did receive $50 million for Robert E. Kennedy Library renovations and $10 million for construction of a new Science and Technology Research Center, which will also be donor-funded. Requests for more space are satisfied depending on how much money the state will grant Cal Poly over the years.

According to Juanita Holler, President of Facilities and Development Management at Cal Poly, the state prioritizes all requests against the other 23 CSU campuses, as well as other state-funded projects. Higher education is contained within the state’s discretionary budget, making funding to the CSU system and Cal Poly more vulnerable to the economic conditions of California than other appropriations areas, according to Lazier.

“Over approximately the last 10-15 years, the state has reduced its funding to higher education – primarily due to the economic impact of the Great Recession,” Lazier wrote. “This has resulted in a variety of cost-cutting and efficiency initiatives, as well as increases in tuition and fees.”

Holler is also a current member of a newly assembled committee designed to evaluate space on campus — a task that she hopes will save money while efficiently using space.

In February 2018, the University Space Management Committee was assembled by President Jeffrey Armstrong to begin the process for evaluating existing classrooms and campus areas. This new committee is expected to submit annual status reports to Armstrong with detailed needs for specific departments and programs.

Members include high-ranking campus administrators such as the Vice Presidents of Administration & Finance, Student Affairs and the Dean of Research.

Dumars is also a member of this committee, and the committee is not the only new aspect of Facilities introduced to adapt to crowding. Dumars’ position itself was created in May 2018 to implement a strategic process of space allotment based on need, which had not officially existed at Cal Poly before.

According to Dumars, this is part of why Cal Poly has struggled with space and its allocation so much in the past and present.  

“There’s not available space where we can say ‘Oh there’s a half of a building, who needs it the most?’ type of thing because there’s so much space deficiency across campus,” Dumars said. “It’s almost like we spent the last year just putting out fires.”

Nate Edelman, Cali Magdaleno and Brendan Matsuyama contributed to this article.

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