Weeks After Controversial Schedule Change, Questions of Accountability Persist

The controversial final schedule change announced in May has been considered both “formally and informally for years” according to Provost Tom Stephenson.

Changing the spring finals schedule was last formally considered over a decade ago, says Stephenson. At that time, there were two options proposed: shorten the spring semester but maintain the finals schedule, or maintain the spring semester’s length and alter the finals schedule in some way (Stephenson did not remember the specific changes proposed). Although neither of these options gained a plurality of support and the schedule remained unchanged, Stephenson said that informal discussions about altering the spring schedule have persisted.

MUDDLED MOTIVATIONS

In his May 21st email, Stephenson said that the change would provide a “significant advantage to our community” because “it will allow our graduates to move on to their next endeavor one week sooner, and will also allow our faculty and continuing students to begin summer internships, employment and research projects either on or off campus earlier than previously scheduled.” However, faculty, administrators, and students who spoke to the Daily Gazette agreed that this change was primarily motivated by faculty and administrators’ concerns.

The thirty-day gap between the end of classes and graduation was cited by Stephenson, because it left non-honors students with “really nothing much to do” for two weeks. But when asked who had raised the issue of the schedule, Stephenson said that changing the finals schedule was a “faculty-slash-administration-led issue.”

Both Stephenson and Associate Dean of Academic Affairs Diane Anderson said faculty were in favor of lengthening their summer, which would allow more time for activities outside of the ten weeks of summer research roughly a fourth of the faculty conducts. Anderson said that the increase in students working on summer research with faculty has resulted in professors doing “less of their own work over the summer” because they are “continuing to teach…even though they’re technically 9 month employees.” She went on to say that Swarthmore’s “delayed” graduation meant that professors could not collaborate with faculty at other colleges until early June, as opposed to late May.

Stephenson’s comments resembled Anderson’s, saying that Swarthmore’s faculty is “particularly committed” to working with students but that their summer schedules “get constricted.” He said that this change will “de-stress the schedule not only for our [faculty], but also for the students.”

The idea of shortening the spring semester — which is currently 14 weeks, as opposed to the 13 week fall semester — rather than finals week itself has been raised by both previous curriculum committee members and students seeking alternative options to the finals schedule change.

Stephenson said shortening the semester in this way would put Swarthmore “completely out of sync with” Haverford and Bryn Mawr, which would be “very hard for us.” Stephenson did note that Swarthmore is “a little bit out of sync” with Bi-Co schedules due to the fact that Swarthmore alone remains in session on certain holidays. Stephenson is not currently attempting to address this option, but said that he is “committed to talking with Haverford and Bryn Mawr in the coming year.”

 

LACK OF STUDENT INPUT

The committee’s lack of interest in student input has frustrated many students, who were, for the most part, not aware that the finals schedule might be changed until the decision was announced.  Peter Amadeo ‘15, an honors major in chemistry, said the strong backlash to the change shows that, while the committee did speak to its student members, it “did not talk to enough students”.

Amadeo went on to point out that the decision to make the announcement after students had left campus means that those opposed to the decision will be unable to effectively organize against the decision until the fall. Student Council must be in session to bring a referendum, and Amadeo fears that fall will be too late to reverse the change.

Curriculum Committee member Martin Mathay ‘15 said that discussion about changing the spring schedule began around Fall Break 2013 and the schedule eventually presented to faculty was finalized around Spring Break 2014. Although Mathay was a member of the committee and therefore inside the decision making process, he was surprised when the change was announced to be taking effect in 2015. He said that he expected the change to take effect in 2016 at the earliest, and even that “would be a push.”

 

QUESTIONS OF ACCOUNTABILITY

The sudden nature of the change has raised questions about administrative accountability at Swarthmore. When asked for meeting minutes by the Daily Gazette, Tom Stephenson admitted that the curriculum committee did not take notes at its meetings, despite the fact that the committee was not confidential.

Stephenson went on to say that there had been “some discussion in the past” about making the committee process more open, since the curriculum committee is not one of the “highly confidential committees,” but “it just never quite came about.” He said this would be a lesson going forward, and that he is “not quite sure what happened there.”

The lack of any records for curriculum committee meetings makes discussing the decision-making process difficult. In an interview, Tom Stephenson first said that the issue of senior week was not discussed, but later said that a student member of the committee did raise concerns about the effect the new schedule would have on the events. When asked what committee members thought of the potential conflict, Stephenson said he did not remember.

The Daily Gazette reached out to multiple professors on the curriculum committee, all of whom declined to comment on the change — some of whom deferred to Tom Stephenson.

Dean of Students Liz Braun also declined an interview, but in an email to the Daily Gazette said that she supports the changes and believes they will be successful “as long as faculty, students, and staff all partner together to work through the implementation process.”

 

STUDENT REACTIONS

Mathay spoke up when he felt certain changes would be impossible for students to cope with. In an earlier draft of the schedule, Mathay says, there was a full five-day reading week but no gap between written exams and oral exams for honors students (there is typically a four day gap). Mathay told the committee “that couldn’t happen.”

Concerns about the newly shortened finals schedule persist among students. Of the 702 students who voted in a Moodle poll set up by Student Council, 527 (75%) “strongly opposed” the change, while an additional 105 (15%) “opposed.” 20 students (3%) and 14 students (2%) “strongly supported” and “supported” the change, respectively. Students interviewed by the Daily Gazette cited both coursework and student activities in their responses to the change.

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Nithya Swaminathan ‘16, an Honors English Literature student, said she “need[s] reading week” to provide a “buffer” between the end of classes and start of exams, because in the past her professors have “frequently asked for assignments before the exam period even began.” Swaminathan, who is also an international student, said that international students “often need the extra time to apply for visas” before leaving Swarthmore, time that the gap between exams and graduation provides.

Sara Morell ‘15, an Honors Political Science student, believes that the faculty’s desire to start research earlier played a bigger role in the decision than student interest. She acknowledged that faculty members (who are typically at Swarthmore longer than most students) should have their interests represented, but said that it is also “important to consider the impact that certain decisions are going to have on students.” Shortening the finals schedule, she said, will affect both the academic performance of students and the senior class’s “ability to say goodbye to each other.”

Thanks to the hundreds of emails sent by angered students, the administration and faculty are aware that the student body is worried about the impact the schedule change will have on them. Stephenson said he will pay “close attention” to student feedback, but his goal is “making the schedule work for everyone… within the framework that we have already established.” This means it is unlikely that “major landmarks” like commencement or the end of classes will be rescheduled, he said.

 

THE HONORS PROGRAM

Anderson is aware that changing the finals schedule, especially for honors students, is an “important issue,” but said she believes the faculty will “make it work.” If honors students are worried about preparing for their exams, Anderson says they should talk with their professors. She went on to say that she believes a shortened preparation period will not affect the performance of students, because honors students “don’t wait until the week before honors exams to study… they never cram it into a short period of time.”

Craig Williamson, Honors Program coordinator and English Literature professor, disagrees. Williamson said he told the curriculum committee (who had approached him for an opinion) that the proposed change was “not a good idea” because it would “make life difficult for the honors students” by shortening the time between the beginning of classes and the beginning of honors oral exams. Williamson is in favor of shortening the spring semester’s teaching schedule by one week, because he believes that shortening the time between honors written and oral exams to fewer than two days would be “disastrous”.

Williamson echoed concerns about a lack of student input on the committee and the Curriculum Committee’s decision not to inform the student body of the changes being considered (something he considers their responsibility). He also mentioned declining numbers of students who participate in the honors program. While the honors program used to have just over a hundred students each year, according to Williamson there were 89 honors students in 2013, and only 81 in 2014. Although there is no clear reason for this decrease, Williamson speculated that stress has played a major role, and suspects the shortening of the finals schedule will further complicate the issue.

Williamson stressed that he does not want the decision over the schedule change to cause a rift between the student body and the faculty. While it is the faculty that have the final vote, he said, “there are a lot of constituencies that are affected” by the decision, and the faculty would be “foolish” not to consider student voices.


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Allison Hrabar

Allison is double major in Political Science (Honors) and Film and Media Studies. When not working for The Daily Gazette, she cajoles people into watching the The Americans (Wednesdays at 10:00p.m. on FX).

5 comments

  1. 0
    Chris Geissler '13 says:

    The strongest reason I can think of in favor of this decision from a students’ perspective is that it makes it much easier to schedule summer work, particular 10-week internships/REUs/research projects. For years, students have had trouble squeezing a full ten weeks out of the summer, particularly if also coming back to campus early as RAs or the like.

    I would be more positively inclined towards the proposal if that had been explicitly discussed in the announcement, rather than the vaguer wording in Tom Stephenson’s email.

  2. 0
    Jim Moskowitz says:

    If the length of one year of Swarthmore gets reduced by about 3%, will there be a corresponding reduction in the cost of one year of Swarthmore?
    Or at least in the cost of room and board?

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