May 3, 2012

A New Perspective on Calendar Changes

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As co-chairs of the Academic Calendar Committee, our goal has been to construct a calendar that might reduce student stress and also improve faculty work-life balance, while complying with NYS Education requirements. The latest version of our recommendations is available online. We’d like to thank students, faculty and staff for their many thoughtful comments and ideas, communicated through emails, meetings, polls, articles and op-ed pieces. In particular we would like to acknowledge the Student Assembly, whose resolutions of April 12 and 26 have been instrumental in shaping our recommendations. We discuss those here, with the hope of clearing up some misconceptions that have crept into the discussion. The April 12 Student Assembly resolution listed six imperative properties of an academic calendar. One of these, item three, was the creation of a new break in the Spring semester that would occur before Spring break.  Such a break has been a consistent feature of our recommendations, and has been endorsed by the GPSA, Employee Assembly, Educational Policy Committee, Gannett’s Mental Health Director and many individuals. This innovation is not only beneficial in its own right, but also allows Spring Break to be moved so as to divide the semester into thirds, thus breaking up long blocks of instruction during the most stressful period of the academic year. The February break also helps families whose children have a Presidents Day recess. Also, the proposed fall calendar has always included the elimination of the current half-day of instruction on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving break. The S.A. supported this idea with the resolution’s fifth item. What has been more controversial — and misunderstood — are the committee’s recommendations to streamline study and exam period. The April 12 resolution listed two imperatives: 1) “A minimum of 4 full days of study period” and 2) “A minimum of 8 full days for exam period.” Both of these requirements were met in the committee’s recommendations presented to the Faculty Senate in April. However a recent Sun article erroneously stated that the committee’s proposed calendar would “condense the exam study period from seven days to four.” In fact, in the current academic calendar, the study period begins on Saturday and ends on Wednesday (with the first exam being held during the 7 p.m. period on Wednesday); this is officially 4 2/3 days, so our reduction was 2/3 of a day.  In addition, The Sun article stated that exam week would be reduced from “eight days to six.”  The exam period in the current academic calendar begins with a single exam on Wednesday evening, ending on Friday, for a total of 9 1/3 days.  Exams in the publicly discussed calendar recommendations would be scheduled over an 8 day period, not 6 as the Sun article states. This is a reduction of 1 1/3 days. Despite the fact that our recommendations met these two imperatives of the April 12 resolution, the S.A. passed a second resolution on April 26, requesting a longer study and exam period and listing three options for achieving this goal. Upon learning of this latest resolution we met with the Dean of Faculty and the Registrar, discussed the three options and revised our recommendations to meet this new request. The study and exam period has now been lengthened by inserting a break day into the exam period — options (ii) and (iii) in the April 26 resolution. Although, based on modeling conducted by the Registrar’s office, this “forced” break is not optimal for reducing the number of student conflicts (e.g., back-to-back exams, three exams in 24 hours), we take seriously what undergraduates are telling us concerning the psychological value of such a break in the middle of the exam period. The fact that the April 26 S.A. resolution provided three alternative solutions for relieving stress during exams was very constructive, as it provided flexibility and implicitly recognized that there must be tradeoffs in creating a viable calendar. We applaud the S.A. for recognizing the relative benefits of events that compete for a finite number of days available for achieving important mental health goals. However, adding a day to study / exam period does bring our revised proposal in greater conflict with the April 12 S.A. resolution’s item six: “A minimum of 4 full days for Senior Week Programming in the Spring Semester.” Our previous recommendations had Senior Week beginning on the Tuesday before Commencement; our proposal, as revised to meet the demands of the April 26 resolution, extends the exam period one day further into Senior week. However, as was true in the previous proposal, the Registrar will create a schedule in which few seniors have exams on the final day. In the process of formulating our recommendations, the committee considered many other options and ideas that word limits preclude from discussing here. The issues are complex and interacting, and we recognize that no calendar is perfect.  Yet, we do believe that we are proposing a calendar that best meets the needs of all our constituencies, while addressing student mental health concerns. The committee voted to send this set of recommendations forward to the Faculty Senate because the majority of its members believed that it was the best set of difficult compromises. Finally, we hope that we have laid to rest the erroneous assertion that the committee ignored input from undergraduate students (Sun editorial of April 25). Far from being ignored, the opinions of the two undergraduate members of the committee — both members of the S.A. — were sought on every issue. That in the final voting, one of these valued members of the committee was the lone vote against the resolution does not mean that he or she was “ignored.” It just means the arguments against waiting to bring the calendar to the faculty senate were not persuasive enough to convince the other members. The committee has been responsive to feedback from many individuals and groups, including a number of undergraduates who wrote to the committee’s e-mail address. We hope addressing the calendar in light of the S.A.’s two resolutions makes this point clear.

Jeff J. Doyle is a professor in the Department of Plant Biology and the Department of Plant Breeding and Genetics. He can be reached at jjd5@cornell.edu. Dr. Kate Walsh is Fred G. Peelen Professor of Global Hospitality Strategy and Associate Professor of Organizational Management. She can be reached at kmw33@cornell.edu. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Original Author: Kate Walsh

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