Over a year ago, Provost Ka Yee Lee announced several changes to the academic calendar, including shortened instructional periods from nine-and-a-half weeks to nine weeks, a week-long Thanksgiving break, three-day reading periods, a three-week September term, and an earlier end to spring quarter. These adjustments went into effect last autumn, in the middle of remote learning during the pandemic.
Last March, The Maroon Editorial Board criticized the University’s failure to meaningfully involve undergraduates in deciding to make these changes. As predicted, the decision to omit undergraduate voices resulted in a calendar largely disliked by students—a calendar that does not work for students. The shortened instructional time worsens an already breakneck schedule. The shortened reading period—once a chance for students to prepare themselves before finals, now, a glorified weekend—exacerbates the whiplash from the quarter and is indicative of how detached from students’ lives the new calendar is.
While we maintain our position that the University should revise the academic calendar after considering more undergraduate students’ input, it shows no signs of reversing course. As such, we urge the University to, at minimum, implement the ancillary suggestions made by the Committee to Review the Academic Calendar, including the reinstatement of part-time status and a strengthened Office of the Ombudsperson.
Tasked by Dean Boyer in 2019 to assess the “rhythm, flow, and particular features of our [then] present academic calendar,” the Committee produced a 55-page report containing an analysis of the shortcoming of the old calendar, suggested modifications informed by said analysis, and a crucial list of changes and policy recommendations the University should consider adopting in order to offset the drawbacks of the suggested shortened quarter.
The University enacted the schedule suggestions faithfully. Yet, as we approach the middle of spring quarter, the University has given no indication that they will make these ancillary changes, or that they have even considered them. As the committee noted at the very beginning of the report, “no unit in the University operates in a vacuum,” but admin still treated the report like an à la carte policy menu, picking the recommendations that work best for them while ignoring the more inconvenient ones. Changing the academic calendar massively disrupted the University ecosystem. The committee designed their ancillary suggestions to account for this disruption by strengthening support systems that ease the burdens brought with shortened quarters. If the University truly cares about the well-being of its students, these measures should not be taken as optional.
Admin can start by listening to the committee’s prescription to revisit the discussion around part-time status. In 2015, Jay Ellison announced that there was no longer a need for part-time status. Since then, students have had to either enroll in at least three classes or go on leave. Without an intermediate option, struggling students who want to ease their academic workload and maintain academic progress often find themselves choosing between stress and stagnation. The new calendar only makes this choice even harder. Resurrecting part-time status would give students the flexibility needed to weather storms, thus offsetting some of the stress brought by the new calendar.
Furthermore, the University must make taking Leaves of Absence (LOA) more feasible, especially if it does not reinstate part-time status. Students on LOAs face uncertain on-campus housing and unclear expectations and poor communication from the University. The intensity of the new calendar will only worsen students’ mental health, and increase the number of LOAs in turn. Guaranteeing housing for students upon return from their LOA, as well as setting up a more formal path for LOAs will make clear to students that the University will not punish them for taking a quarter off.
In its report, the Committee recognized that its suggestion to shorten exam periods could “aggravate” students’ stress. The committee also found that many professors “disregard” policies that define when professors can and cannot assign papers and exams, policies already in-place to help make workloads more manageable. These professors often ignore reading period policies and assign papers “erratic[ally].” To combat this inconsistency and offset some of the additional stress brought with the shortened exam periods, the Committee called for “stronger and renewed emphasis on compliance.”
The solution, luckily, is clear: Give the Office of the Ombudsperson the power and the resources needed to protect students and ensure compliance. As noted in the report, the Office of the Ombudsperson is the place where issues regarding compliance should be brought. Charged with “listening” to student complaints and calling “attention to any injustices and abuses of power or discretion,” Ombudspeople have lots of responsibilities and no teeth. The Office of the Ombudsperson—composed of two part-time Ombudspeople and an associate, part-time Ombudsperson—creates an illusion of institutional checks and balances where there is none.
With an “extended purview”—the power to enforce policy—the Office could help alleviate the stress brought with the new calendar by holding professors who violate policy to account. Furthermore, the Ombudspeople are currently graduate students who couldn’t possibly be expected to stand their ground against tenured transgressors. But if the Office employed staff who are tenured, it would have the cultural authority and institutional influence to actually hold professors accountable and ensure that final papers and exams are only administered when permitted. Without strengthened Ombudspeople, better LOA policies, and the reinstatement of part-time status, this new calendar will continue to be an abject failure, making students’ and professors’ lives that much more stressful. The University, therefore, must listen to the committee to review the academic calendar’s report indiscriminately.