Bruce's Blog

Dec. 11, 2009

What about switching to the semester system, wouldn't that save us money?

I understand the logic: two registration periods instead of three might save administrative costs. That is true although compared to decades ago when registration was a much more labor-intensive effort, the savings today would be nowhere near as much.

It is a little ironic as the quarter system came about as a way to save dollars. It originated in California where the UC system projected that, by moving to a year-round 4-quarter calendar, they could, over a period of years, avoid the costs of building a full, new campus of 28,500 students. A true and full 4th quarter never really happened. Funny how we human beings don't always behave as those with their efficiency calculations would have us do.

I did co-chair conversion to the semester system many years ago when at Oregon State University. I was responsible for the academic side. It was an intense two years of work for everybody on campus – then the Oregon University System governing board halted the effort for the whole system and at the 11th hour. I wanted to take out an ad in the Chronicle: "ENTIRE UNIVERSITY CURRICULUM FOR SALE – NEVER BEEN USED."

Be that as it may, I did garner considerable hands-on experience with academic calendars and their conversion. I became convinced that the administrative savings were very small with almost no actual dollar savings. The savings were in the form of hours some people might have freed and available for other purposes – important but still small. And smaller still as online registration has replaced people from every department having to sit in an arena handing out IBM cards. (For, those not recognizing the term "IBM card," try Google.)

There were, however, substantial academic consequences and those are what should drive any decision on whether or not to convert: the academic benefits and costs.

On the costs side, put down two years of intense conversion of all curricula, majors, minors, specializations and concentrations, graduate and undergraduate, general education program, degree requirements, and the like. When done right, it is much more than an arithmetic conversion of credits, hours, and weeks: cutting, pasting syllabi. Folks work collaboratively, starting at the very beginning with goals and objectives for their academic programs, look to their internal strengths and weakness, look to future external needs and opportunities and then, on a blank slate, agree to the learning outcomes necessary to support their desired and shared directions. Getting to that word "shared" can, itself, be very time consuming – and the process very worthwhile. Then comes design of courses and requirements to support the outcomes. And, this must all be done with continual attention to the consequences that spill across often highly interdependent disciplinary structures.

Such effort is a cost. But, of course, it also can be a benefit for a university that does not routinely do the work necessary to sustain a dynamic, up-to-date curriculum. At Western, it looks to me like we do. At Oregon State, I used to joke that the Academic Catalog read like an archaeological record of those who used to teach there.

Who should decide the university's academic calendar? I think the answer is simple: the faculty. Certainly, there are considerations involving staff, students, community, and collaborating institutions and the decisions of the faculty should be fully informed by those considerations. But, I have stated the view that it is the academic benefits and costs that should be determinative. We seek the very best faculty, actually recruiting worldwide these days to find them, and the quality of our academic program structure appropriately must rest in their hands.

As but one faculty member, I would vote for converting to the early semester system. I have been both student and faculty member under both quarter and semester calendars and am firmly convinced that, for what I teach, semesters work better. But, there are colleagues who will passionately argue the contrary.

One objection I take with a grain of salt and I have heard it at other places I have worked. It takes some form like, "The semester system just does not work for my field." Wait a minute, I ask myself. Almost all the rest of the country is already on the semester system and they all do manage to include your field.

After watching successful conversions on an institution-by-institution basis, I also do not give much credence to the view that entire systems have to convert or that the 4-year and 2-year institutions all have to move at once. In any conversion, we would certainly invite our partners in academic collaborations into the discussions. But, the main problem most folks worry about – barriers to transfer – are really rather small. No barriers for transfers going from early semester to quarter. Going the other way, one problem arises in the early spring when those completing winter quarter want to transfer to a semester school because spring semester is, already, half over. Those transfers, though, are small in number.

So, decisions on whether or not we convert need to come from discussion and debate among us all and, foremost, among the faculty. I do believe, because of the intensity of the effort required to reap the full benefits of conversion, that support from the faculty should be firmly felt and fairly widely held – not just a close majority – if we were to move ahead.

Last year, going through the 90 listening sessions, including time talking with the faculty of every academic program, the subject of conversion to the semester system almost never came up. I formed the conclusion that there was no interest in the subject. More recently, folks advised me that there was a substantial push for conversion some years ago. But, that effort was halted and so people are reluctant to take another run at the subject. All I can say is that this remains your call, the door is wide open, and you know where my one of many, many hundreds of votes would go.

I would offer this caution, though. Conversion takes a lot of extra effort. We are all reeling – professionally, psychologically – from major budget cuts. We have a lot to figure out here in terms of how we can best come through what are, whether we like it or not, transforming fiscal changes. Right now might not be the best time to add on the extra responsibilities of doing a first-rate job of calendar conversion.

And, a final thought. I always understood the primary academic rationale for the quarter system to rest upon the opportunity to study a smaller number of subjects more in depth: three 5-credit courses each quarter rather than five 3-credit courses for a semester. At Oregon State, I always said we combined the worst of the quarter and the semester system: almost every department had nothing but 3-credit courses so students were not only dividing their efforts among three quarters each year but, each quarter, were taking five or six courses. At Western, we are not there but, in some areas with reliance upon 4-credit courses, not too far away. Something to think about and something that could be addressed without changing academic calendars. (And, conversion to 5-credit quarter courses does lay the basic groundwork for conversion to a semester system if you are thinking in terms of course contact hours.)




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