2011-2012 academic calendar reflects ongoing debate

Maureen Darras

The 2011-2012 academic calendar was approved Friday, May 21 at the most recent faculty meeting. 2011-2012 will be the third consecutive, and potentially the last, academic year with the modified structure that includes a six-week winter break. This calendar is part of a series of changes mandated in 2009 by the Board of Trustees in reaction to the financial instability of 2008.
The Curriculum Committee is charged with the task of drafting proposals of the academic calendar and presenting these for faculty vote in faculty meetings. The committee is composed of Provost and Dean of the Faculty David Burrows – who serves as chair of the committee and chair of the faculty – Dean of the Conservatory of Music Brian Pertl, Director of the Seeley G. Mudd Library and Associate Professor Peter Gilbert, one faculty member representing each of the four divisions of the university and two student representatives.
Faculty members of the Curriculum Committee serve two-year terms. Currently, the four divisions of the university are represented as follows: natural sciences by Assistant Professor of Chemistry Stefan Debbert, social sciences by Associate Professor of Government and Edwin & Ruth West Professor of Economics and Social Science Claudena Skran, humanities by Assistant Professor of Religious Studies Martin Smith and fine arts by Associate Professor of Theatre Arts Richmond Frielund.
Student representatives on the Curriculum Committee serve year-long terms and are appointed by LUCC. Currently, the student representatives are Ken Weinlander and Angela Wang.
“Under normal circumstances,” stated Burrows, who is serving in his fifth year as Dean of the Faculty, “the committee would put together a calendar with the help of the Registrar. and would present that to the faculty for its approval.”
In years past, the committee has aimed to present its proposals in a faculty meeting in January or February, roughly 18 to 20 months before the calendar being voted upon would take place.
Burrows commented, “Part of the reason for doing it with such an advanced notice is that we want to get it in the catalog for people’s information and when student apply to come here it’s nice to be able to tell when the year starts. A lot of course planning and assignment of classrooms depend on the calendar; a lot of events, particularly with the start of the academic year, have to be coordinated with the calendar.”
The original 2009-2010 academic calendar was adopted in the spring of 2008. However, Burrows explained, “When the severe economic downturn. came upon us in the fall of 2008, the Trustees were very concerned about the financial position of the institution and mandated that we have this earlier start as a way of saving money on energy costs.”
Instead of working on the 2010-2011 calendar in the winter of 2009, the Curriculum Committee was then pressed to revisit and substantially change the 2009-2010 calendar. The mandate was designed to be in effect for the indefinite future. Stated Burrows, “It did seem in part because of the lead-time that we really did need to do it for at least three years.”
Weinlander commented, “As it turns out, the calendar planning process is actually very in-depth; there are a plethora of details… When the Trustees said they wanted the calendar with… certain [date] specifications, we had to operate within those parameters, and create an entirely new calendar for the next year that was quite a departure from previous years. We were almost starting from scratch.”
Burrows acknowledged, “The thing about the date change[s] is that initially everyone thought what we would do is leave the winter and spring terms alone, and have the fall term moved up so it’s essentially two weeks earlier.”
However, this proved untenable. Burrows revealed that the decision to solely alter the 2009 fall term “turned out to be a more complicated change than anyone had anticipated.”
The Curriculum Committee was unable to address the 2010-2011 academic calendar until the spring of 2009. In this second attempt to incorporate the trustees’ desired date changes to fall term, discussions within the faculty focused heavily on the consequences of a shorter summer.
These concerns are reflected in the calendar that was adopted for next year, which contains a condensed winter term, classes subsequently ending in May and an earlier commencement date of June 5.
Burrows defended the faculty interest in preserving the length of the summer: “From the faculty perspective, since this is a student-oriented institution, there’s a lot of juice that goes into teaching during the academic year, which is appropriate. Since we expect faculty to be very active in scholarship and research, that summer time becomes critical.”
Debbert reflected, “I and other faculty who supervised summer research projects [last summer] just worked all year round. . It would be nice to have a little bit more breathing room in the summer. That being said, that time didn’t disappear, it just got moved to December.”
This past spring, the Curriculum Committee presented two proposals for the 2011-2012 academic calendar to the faculty. The first proposal was similar to the calendar that has been adopted for 2010-2011; however, the second proposal – which was ultimately selected by the faculty – had a comparatively later commencement date, as well as a longer spring break.
In addition, shared Debbert, “We also floated the idea of going to a one-day midterm reading period, especially in the winter, just to have a longer spring break and to get out earlier. That was met with a lot of concern. People were concerned about the stress among students, having a compact winter already.” Eventually, the idea of eliminating or altering the midterm reading period was discarded.
Debbert noted, “This was intended . to be a three-year trial period, and this [2011-2012] is year three. We’re trying to take as much information as we can, whether this works for us or not.”
The faculty has yet to determine what the process of reviewing the effects of these changes to the traditional academic calendar of years past will be. Burrows cautioned, “I think [one of] the major things we need to look at [is]: what is the impact on students, and in my view this hasn’t really been talked about.”
He continued, “There are two potential things to look at. One is, pedagogically, what does it mean to have terms . separated by a fairly long block of time? Many faculty [members] are concerned that students will forget what they’ve learned. . A second thing that we really need to look at is what’s the effect of the timing of the end of school . on student summer employment and other summer activities.”
Debbert stated, “The imposition of the winter break was intended to save money. It was a purely financial decision, at a time when things looked very bleak for the university. The question now is: how much money is that saving? Is that money worth what we’re going through?”
He concluded, “In the future we’re going to have to make a decision including the financial health of the university, the effect on the curriculum, [and] the effect on students’ well being.