Light on the Hill, Volume II

Miller, Russell


TINKERING WITH THE ACADEMIC CALENDAR. From the day that Tufts opened its doors in 1854 the institution had operated, as the first catalogue described it, on "an academical year divided into two terms." Originally, the first semester extended from August to early January and the second semester from late February to early July. Each comprised about ten weeks, with a brief Thanksgiving vacation and two six-week recesses between each term. (Christmas did not become a holiday until the winter of 1876.) Many students used the winter vacation to teach school.

The academic calendar changed gradually over the years. By the 1870s the first semester began in early September and ended with final examinations in mid-January; the second began in early February, with Commencement in June. The two-semester calendar was interrupted during World War II by year-round operation, and in 1946 the traditional two-semester system was resumed, but with


the introduction of a six-week optional summer session in the middle of what for many years had been a vacation of approximately thirteen weeks. Although a five-day school week was considered in 1957, it remained five and one-half days (until noon or 1:00 P.M. on Saturdays) until September 1969, when all Saturday classes were eliminated by adoption of a so-called "block schedule." The idea of year-round operation in peacetime was first considered by the provost in 1958-59. The purpose then, as later, was basically economic - to raise additional revenue without substantially increasing the student body at any one time, and to utilize to the maximum the buildings and other facilities. A variation of the traditional academic calendar was discussed by the Academic Standing Committee of the College of Engineering in the spring of 1960 in the form of a tri-semester (trimester) plan. However, when the idea was brought to the Arts and Sciences faculty for consideration there was little enthusiasm for either a summer third semester or a trimester arrangement such as the one at Dartmouth which was offered as a model and appealed particularly to the provost, who was a Dartmouth graduate. There was also talk about admission with advanced standing and acceleration, but maintenance of the traditional four-year sequence for the vast majority of undergraduate degree candidates was still preferred among both faculty and students.

It was not until the 1960s that there was any serious attempt to modify the academic calendar, although there was increasing and widespread dissatisfaction with the existing one. One alternative considered in the early 1960s as part of the plan for what became the Experimental College was a program of student sabbaticals. It was discussed in 1962 by President Wessell's ad hoc Committee on Innovation and Experiment by which a selected group would be removed from the "lockstep" of the conventional academic calendar.

The provost attended a meeting in 1961 concerning year-round operation sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh and representing more than eighty-five educational institutions. Several colleges and universities were on year-round schedules or some variation of it, including a four-quarter system and a trimester system. Almost all of the pros and cons were considered (twelve points in favor of year-round operation and thirteen against). About every conceivable combination came up for discussion. One follow-up at Tufts was the recommendation made by the Educational Policies Committee in 1963 that the academic year be divided into three terms rather than two, and this proposal was embodied in the committee's annual report that year. A recommendation was made in the Faculty of Arts and


Sciences in the spring of 1964 that the university consider a three-course trimester program (the so-called "Dartmouth Plan"), but nothing came of it.

There were other matters in the 1960s concerning the academic calendar besides the number and length of semesters. One was the length of the reading and consultation period preceding final examinations each semester, and another was the number of days to be reserved for final examinations. The students obviously wanted as long a break as possible between the end of classes and the beginning of the final examination period. In accordance with their wishes a flexible schedule was provided by faculty action, effective in 1964, which authorized a minimum six-day end-of-semester free interval, with classes at the option of the instructor. This was accomplished without lengthening the academic year, but for many it meant a reduction in the number of class and laboratory meetings. But at the start of the academic year 1968-69 a set of issues was presented by and to the faculty which upset the status quo and resulted in more than five years of discussion and debate over the whole problem of the school calendar which went far beyond the question of the length of the reading and consultation period.

By long-standing custom the opening meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in September 1968 was conceived as a largely non-legislative assembly when school resumed after a hiatus of some three months. The principal activities were welcoming back those faculty who had been on leave, introducing new members of the academic community, and the hearing of announcements of upcoming events and changes in administrative personnel since the last meeting in the spring. Instead, the meeting that year turned out to be a compoundcomplex and confusing legislative session which caught almost everyone by surprise.

For years the Committee on Administration had prepared each spring the academic calendar for the coming year, which was usually routinely adopted by the faculty with a minimum of discussion or debate. But the one for the 1968-69 academic year was another matter. There had been mounting dissatisfaction in the past two or three years with the calendar but not sufficient concern to make it an issue. There had been increased grumbling about the optional reading and consultation period, talk of scheduling examinations so that the first semester would end before instead of after the Christmas holidays, discussion of what to do with the interval between the two semesters in January, and the possibility of an earlier Commencement date. The president had been forewarned that two proposals to


change the calendar which had already been adopted for the academic year 1968-69 would be introduced at the September meeting, but neither he nor the majority of the faculty was prepared for what actually happened. Not two but five alternate plans were produced at the meeting, all without warning to the faculty and without any opportunity to study them beforehand.

After eliminating the original calendar already adopted, the faculty proceeded to narrow the choices down to two. The assemblage was unable to agree on one, so left the final choice up to the students. Because the academic year was already under way, an immediate response had to be received so that some kind of planning could be arranged for the remainder of the year. Ballots were distributed to both undergraduate and graduate students on registration day.

There was a certain appropriateness in leaving the final decision to the students, for at the same faculty meeting the secretary had read a communication from the trustees approving formal student membership on selected faculty standing committees. The dilemma over the calendar was resolved when the student body overwhelmingly (899 out of the 1179 who voted) cast their ballot for "Plan B." This calendar called for the ending of classes early in December and the completion of examinations before Christmas. The period until the end of January - some three weeks - would be "a voluntary reading and research period," with all university facilities open. In the spring semester a two-week reading and research period similar to the one in January was scheduled to follow the examination period in May. It was obvious that in neither case would a few relaxing days in Bermuda (or on ski slopes in January) be out of place. The idea of a post-examination study period in May was immediately abandoned as patently unworkable. The result of the adoption of the revised calendar was what the students at first called "the January Thing," and which became known, in somewhat more dignified language, as the Winter Study Period. It came to an end in the winter of 1974, but not before it had raised several issues pertinent not only to the overall academic calendar but to the entire educational process.

The experience of the first Winter Study Period in 1969 brought another round of debate over the length of the reading and consultation periods and even of each semester. For many decades the semesters had averaged fourteen weeks, allowing for approximately forty contact hours, but after the Winter Study Period was gradually extended to six weeks, beginning in 1971, the length of the regular semesters was steadily shortened to less than twelve weeks each.


Champions of the traditional two-semester system had become more and more unhappy as they watched the length of the academic year steadily erode. In little more than a decade (by 1969-70) the length of each semester had been shortened to such an extent that a few faculty members feared that the reaccreditation of the institution, scheduled for review in 1970, might even be in jeopardy.

Debate over the academic calendar became a preoccupation (if not an obsession) of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences between 1969 and 1975. The unscheduled faculty debate in the fall of 1968 had been only the beginning. By any standard, an inordinate amount of time and energy, and number of faculty meetings, were devoted to the subject. Arguments over the length of the reading period preceding final examinations, even the number of religious and other holidays to be honored, and the effect of the Winter Study Period on the school calendar, became inextricably involved in the larger question of whether or not to substitute an entirely different schedule from that of the traditional two-semester sequence. To complicate matters even farther, there was a drive to revise the normal semester course load downward (from five to four).

Within the single academic years of 1968-69 and 1969-70, every one of these issues was discussed at length, and with no unanimity whatsoever. The "Great Debate" over the academic calendar continued unabated. The calendar for 1969-70 proposed by the harried Committee on Administration was rejected by the faculty not once but twice. The decision not to observe Yom Kippur as a religious holiday in 1969-70 was made after a student petition in March of 1969 to observe it was signed by a ratio of two to one. (There were 735 who voted for, and 330 against, with 211 abstentions.) Almost 300 Jackson students petitioned to have the reading period extended by two days. A tentative calendar for 1970-71 met the same fate as the one for the previous year. No acceptable substitute was agreed upon until an alternative was distributed at the fall faculty meeting and voted on the spot. The faculty finally voted that, effective in 1970-71, the two semester academic year would be retained; a four-course load would become the standard each semester; final examinations would take place before Christmas; and the Winter Study Period would be extended to six weeks. There would be a committee to oversee the latter.

The extension of the Winter Study Period had so much impact on the academic calendar that when the annual report of the Winter Study Committee was submitted by its chairman in the spring of 1972, several pages were devoted to alternate ways of juggling the


schedule to prevent further reduction in the length of semesters.

Every alternative, from beginning the fall semester earlier in the year to variations of the quarter system were proposed. In all, seven possible calendars were offered for further consideration. The Winter Study Committee recommended in the spring of 1972 that the next such period be reduced from six weeks to four and one-half weeks so that either the number of class meetings could be extended by a week, or that the abbreviated reading period could be lengthened. The Winter Study Period was actually reduced to five weeks in 1973, and to four weeks the following year.

At the very same meeting in the fall of 1968 at which the academic calendar for 1968-69 was debated, the Faculty Long-Range Planning Committee appointed by the president recommended, somewhat hesitatingly, that "a quarter system consisting of three terms of approximately ten weeks each should be considered." But no action on the recommendation was taken at the time because of the urgent necessity to settle upon the calendar for that academic year. When it was duly considered (somewhat superficially) at a later faculty meeting it was decisively rejected by the faculty, partly because of a plea from the administration that the ramifications of such a radical change had not been sufficiently explored. Tinkering with the long-established two-semester calendar could have profound effects on everything from the curriculum to the timetable for the completion of degree requirements and the working out of intercollegiate athletic schedules. However, in spite of the decisive defeat of the committee's proposal, the idea of a major calendar change did not disappear. A thoroughgoing revision became a major recommendation of the next study committee in 1972.

The Committee on Undergraduate Education, created in the fall of 1971 to review the state of liberal arts, Jackson, and engineering, recommended year-round operation and included a lengthy appendix in its report. According to the committee's reckoning, yearround operation would make possible the accommodation of at least 600 additional students and would require attendance at one summer session at least. This revised calendar would supplant the usual two-semester plan and a separate summer school. Three possible options were offered: a trimester, a quarter system, or a split trimester. The latter, consisting of two "intervals" of fourteen weeks preceded and followed by two seven-week intervals, seemed "to have the greatest potential for Tufts." The University Steering Committee (USC), to which the Committee on Undergraduate Education (CUE) was to report in 1972, unenthusiastically approved the idea of abandoning the traditional


nine-month academic year by a transition to year-round operation for at least the Arts and Sciences programs, accompanied by an increase of undergraduate enrollment by 500 to 600 over the next five years. This was a recommendation made "with some reluctance" but was considered an economic necessity.

When the USC published its report early in 1973, four reasons were cited for its reluctance to recommend year-round operation. One of the prime purposes was to create an enlarged economic base and this meant, in turn, an enlarged student body. This ran counter to the long-held conviction that Tufts should retain its moderate size. It would nullify the whole idea of encouraging a greater sense of community, which was already believed to be in jeopardy. It would be further endangered because of the various calendar tracks which would be followed, and activities and loyalties traditionally associated with each class would be lost. Further, enlarging the student body in the face of predicted declines in college enrollments nationwide would make the institution more vulnerable than ever, since the decreasing pool of capable students would make competition among the colleges greater than ever.

It was now up to the faculty to take action, and a special meeting was called early in 1973 "to consider calendar arrangements." A Committee on Year-round Operation was appointed, with Provost Albert Ullman as chairman. (Upon his resignation as Provost in early June to resume teaching in the Sociology Department, Kathryn McCarthy took his place.) After "considerable deliberation" this ad hoc committee concluded that major attention ought to be given to questions concerning "the quality of the existing fall and spring semesters." The upshot was the adoption by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences of a policy that, beginning in 1974-75, the two semesters should each consist of fourteen weeks of classes.

But the matter of the academic calendar was far from settled. A national fuel crisis in the winter of 1973-74 which resulted in a 30 percent reduction in the Tufts heating oil allotment that winter meant an immediate temporary readjustment of the academic calendar as well as the closing of several buildings. The Winter Study Period was reduced to four weeks in 1974, followed by a month-long recess. The second semester that year did not end until early June, and Commencement was held in the middle of that month - the latest it had been for many years.

The trustees, still wrestling with the problem of deficits in the spring of 1974, kept apprised by the president of the almost endless debate over the calendar, requested the faculty to inform them "in


some detail" of the financial implications of year-round operation. The trustees had been concerned for some time over the increasing reliance on tuition income to meet expenses. The chairman of the trustee Finance Committee asked that twelve-month use of facilities be studied as one means of holding down spiraling costs. The trustees had conducted their own investigation and had come up with three basic proposals: a year-round academic schedule; an expanded summer term "of such size as to result in a net increase in income"; and summer-long use of facilities for conferences, seminars, and other special events that would bring in additional income.

In response to the trustee request, the Fletcher School promised to "strive for increased summertime use of our facilities" but an ad hoc committee "did not find that a year-round schedule would be useful or desirable; on the contrary, it would be counter-productive." It appeared that if this expedient were to be tried at all, it would have to come by way of the division of Arts and Sciences.

The dean of the faculty, in response to the trustee request, created a nine-person task force consisting of faculty and students who were charged with making a report by the fall of the 1974-75 academic year. A member of the Economics Department was made chairman. They labored diligently during the summer of 1974 and produced an elaborate report bristling with statistical data and consisting largely of a detailed economic analysis of the feasibility of year-round operation for Tufts in the context of national trends in that direction. The report did not formally endorse or recommend any particular calendar but leaned toward year-round operation as the best method of generating new income.

The committee's report was studied at length by the faculty Educational Policy Committee which recommended in December 1974 that yet another committee be created to explore and make recommendations regarding an enlarged and extended summer session to complement the existing two-semester calendar. After a series of meetings in the spring of 1975 a subcommittee to study the matter was unable to come up with any specific solution that would lead to possible economic advantage. A flexible program was the best solution proposed. Dean Harleston had decided by the spring of 1975 that the entire complex and worrisome issue of the academic calendar be laid to rest. It had been almost worked to death and about every possible avenue had been explored. The overriding consideration throughout the prolonged explorations had been economic: how to avoid a further substantial increase in enrollment, which had risen 13 percent


between 1970 and 1975, and further sharp rises in tuition and fees which had increased by 41 percent during the same period. The assumption on which year-round operation was based was that greater numbers of students could be accommodated with only modest increases in operating costs; hence, more tuition income would be available in any given year to apply to total expenses. But there was grave doubt among faculty, students, and some members of the administration that additional students of the quality desired could be obtained in a period in which a shrinking potential clientele was predicted. Then there was the ever-present problem of expenses, which would inevitably increase, notably in the field of academic administration and additional services for physical plant (e.g., air conditioning during the summer months).

There were also non-economic arguments against year-round operation. There was allegiance to the traditional two-semester system. Even the Winter Study Period between 1970 and 1974, which had come to represent a "mini-semester," had not worked out. Further, there was apprehension that year-round operation would introduce discontinuities not only in the program and student body but also in the faculty. The maintenance of coherent sequences of prerequisite courses would pose a major curricular problem. There was also the fear of excessive work pressure on both students and faculty and the absence of the usual change of pace and opportunity for research and student employment as well as for rest and relaxation for many during the summertime. The dean came to the conclusion that year-round operation "was an interesting idea which is not now viable." The question of year-round operation ceased to be an agenda item for faculty meetings after 1974 and the calendar for the 1975-76 academic year, recommended by the Committee on Administration, was adopted without change, as was that for 1976-77. The traditional two-semester calendar had survived, Winter Study had become part of a rapidly fading past, and the winter recess between terms had returned to its customary three weeks. No more talk was heard about year-round operation. The only deviation from the existing academic calendar after 1974 was the loss of four class days because of a blizzard in February 1978 which temporarily paralyzed the Greater Boston area. Of the various plans considered to make up the lost time, the one proposed by the Tufts Community Union, the student governing body, was adopted, and the normal calendar was resumed with a minimum of disruption. The financial state of the university had improved steadily after 1974 and the necessity of


introducing what for Tufts would have been a radical educational experiment in its academic calendar was removed.

  • Light on the Hill, the second volume of the history of Tufts University, was published in 1986, covering the years from 1952 to 1986. This doucument was created from the 1986 edition of Light on the Hill, Volume II.
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 Title Page
1. Setting the Stage for the Second Century
2. Long-Range Planning
3. Bricks and Mortar 1952-1967
4. The End of Theological Education at Tufts
5. Ever-Widening Curricula for Liberal Arts and Engineering
6. Jackson College: A Search for Identity
7. Defining the Role of the College of Special Studies
8. The Arts and Sciences Faculty I
9. The Arts and Sciences Faculty II
10. The Central Library
11. The Changing Character of the Student Body
12. Fraternities and Sororities at Tufts: A Cyclical History
13. A Beehive of Activity: From Trustees to Students
14. From Wessell to Hallowell
15. The Hallowell Administration: Years of Trial and Tribulation
16. The Hallowell Administration: Continued Trial and Tribulation
17. Educational Ventures, Successful and Otherwise
18. The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy
19. Medical and Dental Education I
20. Medical and Dental Education II
21. Taking Stock of the University in the 1960s and 1970s
22. The Mayer Administration: A Preliminary View
23. The Mayer Administration: Consolidation and Expansion