May 8, 2012

Despite Student Outcry, New Calendar Approved by Narrow Majority

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Overriding student opposition, the Faculty Senate voted Wednesday, 35-25, to adopt the contentious changes to the academic calendar proposed by the University’s Calendar Committee.

Likely marking the first alteration to the calendar since 1984, the new calendar –– which still must be approved by President David Skorton and Provost Kent Fuchs to go into effect –– would be implemented gradually over the course of the next several years, according to Prof. Kate Walsh, hotel management, vice-chair of the committee.

If given final approval, the changes would cancel classes the Wednesday before Thanksgiving in the fall. In the spring semester, the changes include the cancellation of classes on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, the addition of a two-day break in February and the ending of classes on a Wednesday, as opposed to a Friday.

Additionally, the changes would shorten study week in both semesters to five days: four consecutive days before exam week and one day off in the middle of exams. It would also shorten exam week to eight days, and Senior Week to between two to four days, depending on the date of seniors’ last exam.

Student leaders decried these proposed changes, saying the shortening of study and exam weeks in particular will have an adverse effect on student mental health.

“I was very surprised [that the changes passed] today because I thought the Faculty Senate would recognize there were a lot of problems with the proposal — including the extreme stress and harm to mental health,” said Adam Gitlin ’13, incoming president of the Student Assembly. “I thought the faculty senators would recognize that that is a huge issue with the proposal.”

However, Prof. Abby Cohn, linguistics, said that she did not think this concern was entirely valid.

“I personally see the proposed calendar as a step forward on many fronts,” Cohn said. “I think it at least moderately relieves student stress.”

Additionally, Walsh said the proposal allows for the best possible educational opportunities for both students and faculty, particularly in terms of faculty retention.

“As we attempt to recruit and retain the best and brightest, we hoped to address concerns of faculty with school-aged children,” she said.

Still, some professors criticized the proposal due to the negative impact they said it will have on the quality of students’ academic experiences.

“The shortening of study week affects the work we do with students to prepare, meeting people one on one, extra office hours, et cetera,” said Prof. Dick Miller, philosophy. “I think this proposal that would worsen education in the spring semester.”

Other professors questioned whether the committee had sufficiently researched the feasibility of making drastic schedule changes to finals week.

“The registrar has assured us that most seniors will not have exams on Tuesday [of Senior Week],” said Prof. David Shmoys, operations research. “There has not been thorough testing on this can be done, or how this won’t be impacting the schedules of everyone else. I don’t understand how these details could be overlooked.”

Geoffrey Block ’14, at-large representative for the S.A., who is a member of the Calendar Committee, also criticized the proposal’s shortening of Senior Week.

“Eliminating Senior Week does not help seniors have a good last memory of Cornell, and the lack of preparation for graduation, to get everything in order and to say goodbye to friends, will put a lot of stress on students,” Block said.

Additionally, students criticized the lack of student input involved in the process of developing the proposal presented to the Faculty Senate.

“They’re saying this is for student mental health, but why were the students not consulted?” said Celia Muoser ’13, incoming president of Cornell Minds Matter.

Additionally, at the meeting, Gitlin and Muoser were each given one minute to present their opinions regarding the proposal –– a time limit Muoser said was “strictly enforced.”

“Students weren’t really given any opportunity to speak after questions arose,” Block said. “When professors would ask things, we weren’t allowed to answer.”

Muoser said the only student input solicited was by students themselves. However, according to Walsh, the committee sought the feedback of a number of student groups on campus, including the Student Assembly, the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly and the Orientation Steering Committee.

Additionally, in the days preceding the vote, an online petition denouncing the changes created by Block was circulated among the student body. As of Wednesday night, the petition had received more than 1,600 student signatures.

Still, many members of the Faculty Senate advocated the changes to the calendar, saying they will not necessarily remain permanently fixed. During the meeting, the Faculty Senate voted to add an amendment to the proposal, which calls for a review of the changes to occur three years after the implementation of the changes and subsequent reviews to occur in five-year intervals.

“Not supporting changing the calendar reinforces the fixed and static view of the calendar,” Cohn said. “The calendar is more organic and something that can and should be reviewed on a periodic basis.”

Nonetheless, the changes were met with passionate outcry from a number of students across campus. During the meeting, the Faculty Senate was presented with a petition, signed by the leaders of 50 organizations on campus, urging the postponement of the vote on the changes.

Additionally, shortly after the vote, an email was sent out from each class council to the inbox of the undergraduates in their respective years criticizing the changes. Jennifer Davis, assistant dean of students in the Student Activities Office, later said that the accounts had been “hacked,” and condemned the action as “unacceptable, criminal and not condoned or approved by class councils or the Dean of Students Office.”

“Let’s show the administration we’re tired of them ignoring what we have to say and that we WON’T STAND FOR THIS!” the message said.

However, Prof. William Fry Ph.D. ’70, plant pathology, dean of faculty, emphasized that all parties involved had to make concessions in order to achieve the best result for the Cornell community.

“There’s no one … who could like all aspects of this new calendar,” Fry said. “That’s why compromise is important.”

Gitlin, however, denounced this sentiment.

“Leaders of the Faculty Senate and the Calendar Committee said any calendar will be a compromise, and everyone will dislike something about a new calendar,” he said. “But I believe there’s absolutely no way that the University can compromise on student mental health.”

Original Author: Kerry Close