Three years ago, Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel pioneered the Major Choices initiative, designed to raise underclassmen's awareness of smaller departments.
Nonetheless, this week hundreds of sophomores chose to major in economics, politics, history and the Wilson School –– the four largest departments on campus.
Since the 2004-05 academic year, Major Choices has ensured that "curriculum development funds have been and will be targeted to the support of initiatives in smaller departments to devise new courses or renovate existing courses to appeal more effectively to beginning students," Malkiel wrote in an email.
Though she credits Major Choices for aiding in the growth of some smaller departments, departments are more skeptical of the initiative, questioning whether the initiative is responsible for the slight increases in some departments.
Major Choices, Malkiel said, is not designed "to discourage students who are passionately interested in departments like History or Politics or Economics from pursuing studies in those fields."
But the slight increase in enrollment in some smaller departments over the last two years has been accompanied by a slight decrease for certain larger ones.
Malkiel emphasized the role of the Major Choices initiative in the rise of student concentrators in some small departments, citing "significant changes" in enrollment in the classics, art and archaeology, French and Italian, and psychology departments, among others.
The classics department, for example, traditionally had 12 to 15 seniors each year, chair Dennis Feeney said. But classics saw "a big jump" to 28 seniors in the Class of 2007, the first class to choose majors after the launch of Major Choices.
Though there are about 20 classics majors in the Class of 2008 — and about 20 are anticipated for the Class of 2009 — the department is still notably larger than it has been in recent years.
Malkiel hailed the French and Italian department as a success, as enrollment has increased by more than 30 percent since the start of the initiative.
Though he confirmed a surge in enrollment numbers in recent years, French and Italian Departmental Representative Volker Schroder said in an email that "these numbers fluctuate quite a bit from year to year." He added that the department predicts a decrease in enrollment for the Class of 2009.
"It's hard to tell to what extent any changes can be directly ascribed to the Major Choices initiative," he added.
Art and archaeology professor Anne McCauley said in an email that there is not enough data to know whether the initiative "has radically changed the number of majors" in her department because of "a random variation [in the number of majors] from year to year."
Despite a "significant jump" from 23 majors in the Class of 2006 to 34 in the Class of 2007, McCauley said, the number seems to have dropped back to previous years' levels for the Classes of 2008 and 2009.
"I suspect that most majors are still recruited through classes, so good teaching is the ultimate recruitment vehicle for majors," McCauley added.
In certain academic departments, such as the German department, "the numbers are simply too small to draw any general inferences about the effectiveness of the [Major Choices] initiative," German Departmental Representative Arnd Wedemeyer said in an email.
In the three years since the implementation of the Majors Choices initiative, larger departments have also seen shifts in the number of students signing in. The history department, for example, has seen a "slight decline" for the last two years, Departmental Representative Paul Miles said in an email.
"However," he added, "I would not describe the decline as significant," citing the small deviation of enrollment over the last five years, as well as that the department projects an increase for the Class of 2009.
Likewise, the politics department saw a 10 percent decrease last year, Director of Undergraduate Studies Alan Patten said. But the department projects a significant increase for the coming year.
The Major Choices initiative was designed to allow students to choose a major "based on their intellectual passions, not because they think they have to pick a certain department," Malkiel said. "We have 34 wonderful departments, and we want students to concentrate in all 34 of them, not mainly in four or five."
Despite Malkiel's vision, students may still inevitably be driven by a combination of passion and practicality.
"I worked in a law firm over the summer and realized that I really liked the law and decided to do politics," Patrick Gallagher '09 said, adding that though he seriously considered the religion department, "politics [has] more application for law school."
Though the results have been mixed so far, the Major Choices initiative will continue at least for the time being.
"We're going to keep at it ... knowing that as our efforts continue, more and more students will internalize the message that they should study what they love — and, by following their intellectual passions, choose to concentrate in larger numbers in the smaller departments," Malkiel said.