University News

Faculty forum debates calendar reforms

Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 25, 2012

About 20 faculty members and administrators discussed proposals to revise the structure of fall semester at a spirited faculty forum held in Petteruti Lounge Dec. 13. The forum specifically addressed changes to accommodate Rosh Hashanah and the semester’s vacation structure.

The discussion centered on four proposals presented by Peter Shank, chair of the Faculty Executive Committee and professor of medical science, at a previous faculty meeting Dec. 6.

One proposal suggested starting the fall semester the Wednesday before Labor Day to avoid Rosh Hashanah conflicts, while another recommended maintaining the default calendar of starting the Wednesday after Labor Day. The other two options were to postpone substantive calendar reform but to set calendar dates for 2013 — one plan accommodates Rosh Hashanah, while the other does not.

Faculty opinion was divided. “This was founded as a religious institution, but I don’t think anyone would say it is now,” said James Allen, professor of Egyptology, adding that specifically accommodating Rosh Hashanah would “open the floodgates” for scheduling conflicts with other religious observances.

Allen said such a scenario would leave the University in a “tricky position.” But he added that having the fall semester start the Wednesday before Labor Day would still be the best option.

Thomas Banchoff, professor of mathematics, agreed with Allen, adding that starting before Labor Day would provide space that could be used to create a week-long fall break. Since Thanksgiving Day is the only holiday for instructors who teach classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Banchoff said a fall break would address the “asymmetrical” vacation time between fall and spring semesters.

But some faculty members expressed concerns about starting the fall semester earlier, noting that the last week of summer can be valuable for faculty members who also conduct research.

“There are many faculty members who actually do need that time to do their work,” said Seth Rockman, associate professor of history.

Shank cited a recent survey of faculty members that found that 60 percent of respondents favored keeping the current calendar.

Many attendees agreed on the need to be mindful of students’ and faculty members’ religious considerations. Janet Cooper Nelson, chaplain of the University, said that with as many as 25 percent of the student body self-identifying as Jewish, administrators should consider Rosh Hashanah when making calendar changes.

Faculty members also discussed extending Thanksgiving break to an entire week, which could accommodate students who live far away and have little flexibility in their travel plans.

“We have to think about the economics of this for the individual students,” Cooper Nelson said.

Banchoff said one potential compromise could be to start fall semester on Labor Day itself, an idea several faculty members supported.

Faculty members also addressed the possibility of forming a study group to explore changing the schedule of final exams. Some advocated decreasing the length of exam period so students are not trapped on campus for extended periods of time between exams.

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