Penn State Intercom......April 18, 2002
The University's academic year calendar has been a concern and a source of discussion for faculty and students for several years. Two years of discussion culminated in a Feb. 26 University Faculty Senate recommendation suggesting a change to a somewhat shortened, simplified calendar. Faculty need a calendar that is adaptable to their approach to teaching and learning. Students expect a high-quality educational experience within a calendar format that accommodates their summer job schedules, internship placements, co-op experiences and an occasional break in the schedule of classes to study, see their families and refresh themselves. I am most appreciative of the hard work and good thinking of the special Senate Committee, and I am grateful for the interest of USG and for the scores of e-mails I received from faculty and students.
Issues of concern to me have been widespread absences and class interruptions after Labor Day, before Thanksgiving, and both before and after the current break in the fall semester, as well as a general sense that the start of the fall semester is so early that it results in disruption of summer internships and student work, faculty hiring and orientation, family activities and proper preparation of facilities between the summer and fall terms. In addition, our early start date is a competitive disadvantage in student recruitment at many of our campuses. Comparisons with other universities show that the class attendance issue may be related to Penn State's scheduled number of class days being the greatest in the Big Ten and a full week longer each semester than those of the University of Pittsburgh, Temple University and the State System of Higher Education.
The special Faculty Senate Committee, along with other Senate committees, has worked thoughtfully to arrive at its recommendations. In addition to addressing the situation related to breaks, they noted the desirability of a calendar that would be responsive to the substantially changed teaching and learning strategies employed in many courses. They consulted widely and brought useful focus to a com plex issue. Of special value was their emphasis on some fundamental principles, including:
* The University calendar should provide flexibility in serving the academic interests and needs of students and faculty.
* The calendar should provide appropriate time for examinations and other assessment activities as part of the fall and spring semesters and each summer session.
* There should be an appropriate break during each semester.
* A post-Labor Day start is highly desirable.
* The fall semester should end before the traditional December holiday season.
* Arrival day at University Park should occur on a Saturday.
* Commencement at University Park should occur on a Saturday.
* There should be a provision for orientation time at the beginning of each semester.
These principles are useful, and I have taken them carefully into account in my decision for a new calendar. I add to them only a few considerations:
* The calendar should be straightforward, stable and predictable, such that plans can be made by all interested persons, within and outside the University, for up to several years in advance, without needless uncertainty or recourse to complex formulas and listings.
* The calendar should be forward-looking, toward new methods of course delivery and teaching, including greater use of online techniques and new approaches to partial or intermittent residency. After much discussion and thought, I have concluded that a simplified calendar best promotes flexibility. Simplification does not convey rigidity, nor does rigidity about such matters as seat-time convey quality.
* The calendar must be observed. Callers, visitors, parents and friends of students and those with whom we do business should find us open and fully functioning when we say that we are. Students should be expected to always attend class except as provided for in University policy. Similarly, faculty should be expected to conduct all scheduled classes.
* The University calendar applies to all campuses, save The Dickinson School of Law, Penn State Great Valley, the College of Medicine and the Pennsylvania College of Technology, but modest excursions to allow for locally important conditions can certainly be approved when circumstances warrant.
In addition, the Special Senate Committee noted two other principles:
* The fall and spring semesters should be as symmetrical (i.e., equal in length) as possible.
* National holidays should be recognized if possible.
All calendar deliberations immediately introduce the necessity to accept trade-offs, notably because there are simply not enough days in the fall to meet all conditions. In the case of hol idays, the only way we can accommodate many of the calendar constraints is to hold classes on certain days that other organizations might indeed observe as holidays. Further, benchmarking shows us that many fine universities do not observe a symmetric fall-spring calendar. If we are to meet the principles discussed above, a perfectly symmetrical calendar is not possible.
Accordingly, the Penn State calendar for the upcoming years, beginning in fall 2003, will have the following properties:
* Each fall semester will span 16 weeks, including 14 weeks of classes, one 5-day week of finals and assessment activities, and five days without classes. During the assessment period, final exams will be scheduled for Monday through Thursday. Friday will normally be a conflict make-up day for those classes that schedule final examinations.
* The five days without classes include Labor Day and the Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of Thanksgiving week. In addition, the Friday at the end of the sixth week will be a study day, thus creating a three-day class break in the fall calendar. The University will be open on this day so that faculty and students will have the opportunity to take full advantage of University facilities and academic opportunities.
* To balance class offerings and laboratories, so that there are an equal number of Mondays through Fridays, the first day of classes, a Tuesday, will offer a Friday schedule. This one-day trade has worked well at other institutions where it has been used and, given that many lab and discussion sections are regularly scheduled on Tuesdays, the day swap may create an improved introduction to many classes in which the Tuesday sections might not ordinarily meet during the first week.
* Over the rest of the decade, classes begin as early as Aug. 30 or as late as Sept. 5, but never earlier than the week before Labor Day. Looking at the decade ahead, in 2003, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2012 and 2013, classes start the day after Labor Day; in the other years classes would start the Tuesday before Labor Day.
* The fall commencement ceremony is on Saturday, the day after the last day of finals, falling between Dec. 17 and 22, except that on Dec. 22, 2006, undergraduate commencements would be on Friday evening.
* No alteration in the length of class times is anticipated, nor will any change be introduced for spring semester calendars. Thus, Penn State's academic year will consist of 145 class days and 10 assessment/exam days, which is very close to the average for the Big Ten, and four to five days more than the University of Pittsburgh, Temple University and the State System of Higher Education.
* It is desirable to have an orientation period for new students that, at the University Park campus, is somewhat increased in scope. Consequently, it is recommended that the arrival time frame for new students at University Park be between noon on Friday and noon on Saturday. This will allow formal orientation activities to begin following lunch on Saturday. This will provide for significantly increased continuity in our programming for new students.
* Exam/assessment periods will be available for the principal summer session. This can be achieved by a combination of strategies, and the Registrar will be asked to develop a plan that does not unduly lengthen the summer session.
With any calendar, there always are matters that require special attention. Several are discussed below, and I invite readers to bring to the attention of John Cahir (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Susan Youtz (email@example.com) any relevant questions that are not addressed here.
* Classes on days before and after breaks. All deans and department heads are reminded that faculty will be expected to meet all scheduled classes. Any exceptions must be approved by the dean of the college offering the course or his or her designee; a report of such exceptions will be reviewed by the Provost's Office. Moreover, students are urged to avoid asking faculty members to cancel classes. Classes will be held when scheduled. Only by doing this can we be honest with ourselves and with the students and preserve the integrity of the new calendar.
* Arrival Day at University Park. On those years when classes begin on the day after Labor Day, Arrival Day for new students could conflict with football traffic. On such years, arrival will be distributed between Thursday and Friday. Those responsible for the logistics and planning for arrival and orientation should begin planning for 2003 immediately.
* Campus College calendars. Modest departures from the standard University calendar can be considered, but must be approved by the provost.
* Alternative assessments. Active and collaborative learning, online modules, research activities and group presentations are increasingly part of a Penn State education. This calendar encourages those practices, and faculty should begin plans to adapt their courses to the new calendar.
**Fall classes start: Tuesday, Sept. 2. Classes will follow a Friday schedule.
**Study day: Friday, Oct. 10.
**Thanksgiving break: Wednesday, Nov. 26, through Friday, Nov. 28.
**Fall classes end: Friday, Dec. 12.
**Final exams: Monday, Dec. 15, through Thursday, Dec. 18. Friday, Dec. 19, is reserved for exam conflicts.
**Commencement: Saturday, Dec. 20.
**Spring classes start: Monday, Jan. 12
**Spring break: Monday, March 8, through Friday, March 12.
**Spring classes end: Friday, April 30.
**Final exams: Monday, May 3, through Friday, May 7.
**Commencement: Friday, May 14, through Sunday, May 16.