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Stanford departments strive for accessibility

With a recent Yale University study suggesting that students in smaller majors are happier than their counterparts in larger programs due to greater access to and familiarity with faculty, Stanford’s professors and department chairs have emphasized their own efforts to avoid such a divide.

According to Robert Simoni, chair of the biology department, any such issue may be of students’ own making, through a failure to take advantage of opportunities to establish relationships with otherwise accessible faculty.

“It’s not very hard for professors to be accessible [in large majors]…They each have multiple office hours,” he said. “[However] few students take advantage of [professors’ office hours], which can be disheartening.”

William Abrams, professor of human biology, framed his department’s approach as a more proactive one, citing efforts to actively reach out to students.

“[Human biology] is a large major but we’re very well organized,” Abrams said. “We have a lot of programs to make faculty accessible…and the faculty want to be accessible. We look for ways to make ourselves available to students.”

Alex Mullin ’15, a human biology major, emphasized the benefits of that approach.

“The professors are willing to get to know the students and all have office hours,” she said. “Even the professors who are just guest lecturing seem interested in students asking questions and coming to office hours.”

Mullin also cited the value of student advisors in making a larger major more open and manageable.

“Having student advisors helps,” she said. “They make it really easy to get more information about our work or the department.”

Schuyler Smith ’15, a computer science major, acknowledged both the benefits and disadvantages of studying in a larger department.

“In a smaller department, it would be easier to get to know other students because you would get to see them in other classes, and I guess that’s a good thing,” he said. “But I think part of the reason the CS program is so large is because the professors are so fantastic, so students want to take the classes. I certainly wouldn’t trade that for a smaller student body.”

Bruce Owen Ph.D. ’70, director of the public policy program, said that his department—a notably small major—is able to reach out to its students unusually well.

“The students who come and hang around the offices or show up for various events, we get to know very well,” he said. “You get to know everyone by name pretty well.”

Owen said that the faculty and staff in his department are surprised when they receive an application to graduate from a student they didn’t know.

“They knew they were a major, but we didn’t know who they were,” he said. “Other than that, it’s a fairly close-knit group.”

Abrams emphasized the human biology program’s constant efforts to improve as allowing continued accessibility.

“[Human biology] is known for being accessible, and students have told me they appreciate that,” he said. “We work hard as a faculty, spending a lot of time with colleagues talking about our students, how we can be more available or better at meeting the needs of students.”

Owen, however, singled out the public policy program’s small size as a source of student satisfaction.

“We just finished our five-year review process and students were very positive,” he said. “The average responder said they value the small size of the program and hope that it doesn’t get any bigger. They really like getting to know the faculty and staff and other students.”

Reflecting on his own experiences, Smith credited professors themselves—rather than departmental size or programming—as fostering student satisfaction.

“They seem genuinely interested in helping me learn,” he said.

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