April 18, 2011

Turning a Page on the Academic Calendar

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THE FACULTY SENATE’S ACADEMIC CALENDAR COMMITTEE report offers several broad recommendations that — though well intentioned — only further perpetuate the issues that they wish to resolve.

Punctuating the spring semester with more academic breaks to improve student mental health is an admirable goal. With the exception of spring break, students are afforded no time off from semester’s beginning to end. This creates a buildup of stress with no respite. The problem is that to conform to New York State law, administrators must add days to the academic calendar to create room for breaks. But in doing so, the University must be careful not to jeopardize important parts of the semester — like study week and senior week, the two periods that the committee has thus far suggested cutting from — in making these additions.

It does not seem logical to cut days from study week — already an incredibly stressful and busy time of the semester for students — if the goal is to improve mental health. Cornell is an incredibly challenging school. Though schedules do vary, many students have exams, final projects or papers in nearly every class during finals week. It is more of an exception than the rule for students to have free time during the week; it is not as if study period is being underutilized. Cutting days from packed schedules will only compound the stress that students face in an already overwhelming period.

Though not directly related to academics, senior week is one of the more valuable periods for Cornellians during their time on the Hill. Senior week is one of the last times, if not the last, that an entire graduating class will be together in the same place at the same time. On a more individual level, senior week represents a last hurrah of sorts with one’s close friends on campus, before everyone goes their separate ways. Though senior week is often perceived as a party week, it serves as a meaningful and nostalgic time for graduating seniors. Cutting from this week is unfair to current and future seniors and — at the risk of sounding overly dramatic — unfair to their entire time at Cornell.

Thus, if breaks are to be added during spring semester, which we support, a more favorable solution to all may be to cut from winter break. Winter break is already the longest recess in the academic year. Cutting a couple of days from a four to six week-long winter break has much less impact than removing a few days from study or senior week, which are significantly shorter. Without any course work, winter break is a low-stress period and by the time the end rolls around, most students are anxious to return to Cornell. The benefits of adding a few days off during the spring semester outweigh the costs of losing a few days of an already prolonged winter break.

All things considered, we applaud the Committee’s approach to formulating and implementing these changes and believe that it should serve as a model for inclusive University decision-making. The Committee’s inclusiveness begins with its membership; it is made up of several different representatives of the Cornell community, including students, faculty and administrators. Instead of handing down a premeditated decision, it has sought to solicit student and faculty feedback. Coming up with a broad policy, seeking advice from those affected and then revising that proposal into concrete changes is what every decision should look like.

We look forward over the coming months to seeing the Committee continue along this path. It is important that student and faculty feedback is not used for show but is seriously taken into account, so that a favorable solution for all can be reached.