University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg proposed shifting to a 14-week trimester academic calendar last week, a move he said would increase GW’s revenue and “efficiency.” Trachtenberg’s proposal, which he says “needs to be massaged,” calls for the formation of an ad-hoc working group to research the unconventional system and present a report on alternative calendars by early May.
While some administrators said they are open to the idea of the trimester system, which could be adopted as early as fall 2005, they explained that they would like all possible effects to be researched before making a final decision.
Some students, including Student Association President Phil Robinson, said they are wary of a switch from the semester system and its possible effects on summer employment, academics, tuition, social life and overall life on campus.
“I have a campus and I have a lot of sunken resources … you have to ask yourself if you are using your resources to their full potential,” Trachtenberg said, adding that a trimester system would keep residence halls and campus buildings filled near capacity during the whole calendar year.
Trachtenberg said he came upon the proposal after realizing that most schools work off a century-old agrarian calendar that allowed students to go home in the summer to farm. He cited budget cuts at universities across the country during his speech, noting that the proposal would help in the annual effort to keep tuition down and faculty pay up.
“I don’t sit around trying to figure out how to stir the pot,” he said. Trachtenberg also said the University needs to “apply every bit of wit” to using its untapped resources.
He said he is looking forward to seeing the committee report, set for completion by May 1, and will give “serious thought to what they come back with.”
Students currently attend classes for two 14-week semesters and have the option to attend one or two six-week summer sessions.
Trachtenberg said he envisions students being able to choose to attend classes two of the three 14-week trimesters.
While a recent study reports 18 percent of colleges use a quarter or trimester system, Trachtenberg’s proposed calendar is extremely rare. Most schools with quarter systems, which are sometimes called trimesters, separate the calendar into four 10-week sessions, requiring students to attend three sessions.
Vice President for Academic Affairs Donald Lehman is heading up the effort to form the committee, which will include members of the Board of Trustees, about five members of the administration, three faculty members and one student in its preliminary stages.
Lehman listed dozens of questions the committee has to answer about trimester effects on students and faculty. He said the committee will have to research effects on areas such as course availability, student finances, commencement, professor sabbatical and the athletic program.
“The system has its virtues, but there may be some problems to implementing the system,” Lehman said. “One of things they have find out is, do people really want to go to school in the summer?”
Carleton College representatives said the Minnesota institution has had the quarter calendar, which it calls trimesters, in place since 1970. Associate Dean of Students Elizabeth Ciner said the system allows for more efficient use of facilities and more flexibility for students.
Carleton’s system requires students to attend a fall, winter and spring trimester and take three classes per term. She said about 70 percent of students go abroad, usually on eight to 10 week programs, so they are missing 1/12 of their time rather than 1/8 of their time.
Faculty Senate Chair Lilien Robinson said she is open to finding out about the effects of a calendar change, but is adamant that the University needs to make academics its foremost concern.
“As a faculty member … I surely hope that (efficiency) is not our primary concern at a higher education institution that is poised to move up to the next level of universities,” Robinson said.
Robinson said a trimester system could negatively impact smaller academic departments and professors may be forced to teach during all three trimesters. Research time may be limited because many faculty members use the summer exclusively for research.
Many students said they understood the potential financial benefits for the University but were skeptical as to whether the calendar change would bring benefits to students.
“Trachtenberg is a business man. On a business level this makes total sense,” sophomore Jeff Schrimmer said. “But trying to find teachers who will work the summer is just one of the challenges.”
He also said he believes the University might offer some required classes only during the summer session in order to force students to stay for that trimester.
“One of the principle reasons I came to GW is because of the semester system,” sophomore Beth Mosenthal said, adding that a calendar change could make coordination with friends and family during breaks difficult.
Phil Robinson said a change could impact the Student Association and student groups because the allocations process works under the two semester model.
Robinson also called on the University to add a second student spot to the working committee, adding that it will have “drastic effects” on student life.
Trachtenberg said he was skeptical of potential student contributions to the committee.
“It’s hard for me to believe that students bring much expertise to these matters … At the very minimum, they add occasional imagination,” Trachtenberg said.
-Alex Kingsbury contributed to this report.
This article appeared in the November 25, 2002 issue of the Hatchet.