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EPAG town hall forum discusses possible changes to academic calendar

The academic calendar, long a constant at Macalester, could be in for some big changes.
In the near future, students could find themselves with a week-long fall break, along with an additional study day before finals and four more instructional days each semester. Whether these calendar changes are implemented depends on the recommendation of the Educational Policy and Governance (EPAG) committee, whose members are focused on meeting with students and faculty to work out the complications of restructuring the academic year.

A letter written by last year’s student representatives to EPAG, Zack Avre ’14 and Ezequiel Jimenez ’13, set the stage for this potential new policy. Drawing on MCSG surveys, the letter recommended restructuring the calendar to allow for a week-long fall break and additional study days each semester. In an email, Registrar Jayne Niemi explained the role of last year’s representatives.

“Last year’s reps passed the torch to this year’s reps in such a way that the calendar questions were prioritized in the agenda for early in the year,” she wrote.

Changes to the calendar have long been a student goal in EPAG, but the possibility of the committee taking action on the issue is much higher this semester than it has been in the past. According to Merita Bushi ’14, one of EPAG’s student representatives this year, this is due to the student representatives’ focus on the calendar changes and a lighter load of other policy issues compared to past years. She said they have been able to discuss the calendar in every meeting so far this semester, sometimes for most of the meeting.

The two student representatives to EPAG are the chair of MCSG’s Academic Affairs Committee, Bushi, and an additional student appointed through an application process, June Ban ’14. In addition, EPAG currently has nine voting faculty members. The committee also has five ex officio members who attend and advise meetings but do not vote: the Librarian, the Associate Dean of Faculty, the Dean of Academic Affairs, the Registrar and the Provost. If the committee recommends a policy change, the policy is sent to the President and senior staff for a final decision.

The Registrar’s office must publish the academic calendar for the 2014-2015 year by Dec. 1. For changes to be implemented in that calendar, EPAG must make a recommendation by Nov. 21, during their last weekly meeting before the deadline. Committee members are not treating this date as the only time to make a final decision.

“We don’t know yet whether the calendar will be changed or not,” Joëlle Vitiello, Chair of EPAG and associate professor of French and Francophone Studies, wrote in an email.
Bushi recognizes that a failure to make a recommendation by the Dec. 1 deadline does not mean the change will never happen, but she sees the importance of making use of the momentum the policy has in this year’s EPAG.

“It’s true that this isn’t the last chance to change the academic calendar,” she said, “but EPAG will change next year . .. It may be more difficult.”

“A potential vulnerability”

Currently, both the fall and spring semesters have 66 days of classroom instruction.
Raising that number of days to 70 is one of EPAG’s priorities for the new calendar. According to Acting Provost Kendrick Brown, this is due to both aspects of the accreditation process and a desire to match up well with our peer schools.

According to EPAG minutes, in 1992 the faculty set the minimum number of classroom hours for a course to 42, with an ideal number at 45. According to Brown, there are currently courses that do not meet that minimum, such as those that have their first meetings on Mondays.

This inconsistency was a concern for Brown.

“That represents a potential vulnerability when it comes to re-accreditation reviews,” he said.

Macalester is reviewed by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC). Brown said that the inconsistency between Macalester’s stated policy and actual instruction could potentially compel them to take action. He said the main criteria for accreditation, besides being good stewards of the federal money received through financial aid and grants, is to have a consistent mission and policies. Additional instructional days would allow Macalester to meet its own standards for the amount of classroom time per class.

“It’s about being true to what the faculty laid out as a minimum number of class hours,” Brown said.

Brown cautioned against placing too much weight on comparisons to peer schools. He did, however, note that our peer institutions that are also reviewed by the HLC – which include Carleton, Grinnell and Beloit – tend to have around 70 instructional days each semester.

As listed on the HLC’s website, Macalester’s last reaffirmation of accreditation was in the 2006-2007 school year. According to Brown, the HLC now aims to review each institution twice during every 10-year period.

Students and faculty contribute to the conversation

Both Bushi and Ban support the proposed calendar changes, but recognize the need to hear a wide variety of student input.

“I think those are all benefits,” Bushi said, but emphasized that this was only her personal assessment.

The two representatives hosted a town hall in Weyerhauser Board Room Tuesday evening, along with Niemi. It was attended by roughly 30 students, dispersed across graduating classes and about evenly split between MCSG members and non-members.

As indicated by a straw poll at the close of the town hall, the students present were strongly in favor of a week-long fall break, saying it would provide a much needed pause in the middle of the semester that the current four-day break does not.

Some students said that the current break is often used up by long-term assignments and expressed concern that a week-long break in October would be more of the same.

According to Ban, a week-long break would likely not be used in the same way, according to her impression of faculty attitudes towards the idea.

“It’s more of a conception that we are going to get things done before break starts and then afterwards it’s a new beginning,” she said .

Some students stated a preference for a week-long break at Thanksgiving instead, citing long travel times and difficult logistics for visiting family during a four day period.

Another issue raised at the town hall was the proposed longer semesters and how they would be structured. Niemi described the double nature of the extra instructional days for faculty.

“We have some faculty who would say, ‘I could do more with that,’” she said. “At the same time, it’s a labor issue for them; they would have to work more.”
Adam Sirvinskas ’14 won’t see any of the proposed changes go into effect, but he attended the town hall to weigh in on the increased instructional days.

“Compared to my friends that go to different schools we’re in school for a very short amount of time,” he said, “especially considering how expensive tuition is”

The longer semester could also affect athletic schedules. Golfer Maddie Arbisi ’14 was concerned about a potential time time crunch for athletes if extra days are added to the beginning of the fall semester. Niemi said EPAG was considering the NCAA preseason timetable and the teams’ game schedules, and that an earlier start may allow more athletes to participate in orientation.

Most at the town hall expressed support for fitting in the extra days and longer breaks by shortening J-term rather than summer break, citing both more internship and job opportunities and nicer weather.

Not all students felt the same. Clementine Sanchez ’14, an international student whose parents now live in Beijing, said many international students only go home during the winter break. She said high costs and long travel times could lead to tough choices, especially for those students who want to work in their home country during J-term.

“International students would have to decide between going home or having an experience [during J-term],” she wrote in a follow-up email, “or even between going home for a short time or not going home at all.”

One question raised was how the new calendar would affect the cost of tuition and room and board. According to Niemi, preliminary investigations show that the increase in instructional days would not affect tuition. Vice President of Student Affairs Laurie Hamre said that room and board would increase about $100.

An additional study day before finals in both semesters was a less contested provision. At the town hall, Liam Downs-Tepper ’16 described the extra days as “almost essential,” pointing out that many other colleges have entire study weeks before finals.
Besides students, the new calendar would also affect faculty members. Breaks are often used by professors for research, Ban said, and even one less week in J-term could affect that process.

“Scholars take that as a big chunk of their time that is there for their academic career,” Ban said. “That’s an important thing we need to understand also.”
Brown said that faculty perspectives on many aspects of the calendar vary, and that the key is knowing as many of them as possible. When asked about a week-long fall break, he brought up a few examples.

“There’s a range of views on that one,” Brown said, “and that’s what EPAG is going to have to resolve when it makes a recommendation.”

Brown said that a longer fall break could fit well into some professors’ teaching style by dividing the semester more neatly, while others might see it as a needless interruption. Others may see it as an opportunity to catch up on grading and prepare for the semester, he said. He did not take a personal stance on the break.

“From my perspective, I’m kind of agnostic to it,” he said.

According to Brown, he and other EPAG members have been reaching out to faculty by discipline, with more conversations to come in the next few weeks.

“…perhaps even 10 years”

A change to the calendar is likely to be long-term. Niemi, who has the responsibility to create the final calendars as the registrar, explained that new guidelines for instructional days, study days and breaks would ideally be implemented more than one year at a time.
“Once the college decides on the principles and parameters of how the calendar should be constructed, I could act on that and produce calendars for the next three or five or perhaps even 10 years,” she wrote in an email.
Whether the proposed changes start next year and extend for the next decade or aren’t implemented at all, Brown is confident in the process being used to decide the next step.
“I feel fine with how the student and faculty members of EPAG are trying to get as much information as possible before they make a recommendation,” she said.

November 8, 2013

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