Column: Report unsatisfactory on trimesters

I do not feel that the proposed changes to the University’s academic calendar are a good idea. I’ve read the report submitted by the Alternative Academic Calendar, and I encourage everyone to read it. The report seems to focus less on improving academics at GW – the stated purpose of the alternative calendar – and more on adding lucre to GW’s coffers. Students should ask themselves, “is this primarily about improving academics, or is this about raising money and increasing undergraduate enrollment?”

I offer you a few areas to look at and questions to raise:

1. Read the section titled “Pros and Cons of a Required Summer for Rising Juniors: Financial/ Operational Issues.” At the end of the first paragraph, the report states, “In short, the required summer (for juniors) could generate new net revenue for the university.” Later in this section, it gives the specific reason for the net revenue gain – “the GW undergraduate body could grow by about 1000, although it would take several years to reach this point.” The report notes that this would be a 12 percent increase in undergraduate enrollment.

Questions: How does adding 1,000 new students lead to improved academics and increased student learning at the University? What impact will this have on student life at a time when GW is already straining to house its current student body? How will the residents of Foggy Bottom and the city as a whole, with whom the University already has a tense relationship, feel about this goal? Although students will be here at different times, what will happen when 1,000 more students try to register for classes and enter the same housing lotteries?

2. In the section titled “Pros and Cons of 4×4,” the report notes there will be a “20 percent reduction in student course load,” a drop from an average of 40 classes to 31 or 32. The financial incentive for this course reduction is stated clearly in the section called “Three Options: Options 2a.” The report reads, “Individual students are taking about 20 percent fewer courses to graduate than at present, but there are more of them, and each new student brings positive net revenue.” It is important to note that there is no proposed increase in contact time in the classroom when current three credit courses become four credit courses.

Questions: How will reducing the number of courses that students must take by 20 percent make this a better institution, aside from bringing “positive net revenue”? Isn’t college supposed to provide students with a well-rounded education that will afford them the opportunity to explore diverse courses? Studies indicate that in the future employees will be more likely to need to change careers at least once during their lifetimes. How does reducing course offerings prepare students for this future reality? Finally, how will academics improve when there is no increase in class time and students are required to take a mandatory but shortened (10 1/2 week-long) summer session?

3. In support of this proposal, comparisons have been made with Dartmouth College and Tufts University’s academic calendars. While Dartmouth does have a mandatory summer session, it operates on a quarter system, not on GW’s proposed 14 x 14 x 10.5 schedule. According to Dartmouth’s Web site, all students at Dartmouth are required to pass 35 classes (not GW’s proposed 31 or 32). To my knowledge, students at Tufts take four courses per semester, but they are not required to take a condensed summer session. At Tufts, students studying for Liberal Arts degrees are required to pass 34 courses (again, not GW’s proposed 31 or 32).

Questions: Which, if any, schools truly follow GW’s proposed academic calendar? If no other universities have adopted this exact plan, is this because GW’s new approach is more innovative than other schools’ calendars or is it simply because this is not a good system?

4. In the section “Pros and Cons of a Required Summer for Rising Juniors: Student Issues,” the report points out that “many students stated (in surveys) that they would not have come to GW had there been a mandatory summer term (when they applied).” The next sentence reads, “This has to be set against the fact that Dartmouth is a very popular school that does have a mandatory summer.”

Questions: Why did GW students say they would not have come to GW if summer school were mandatory? In my view, the report does not go into sufficient detail about students’ reasoning – an important consideration. Does the fact that Dartmouth is a very popular school with a mandatory summer session mean that GW students will be happy with a mandatory summer session in Washington, D.C.? It is important to keep the following in mind: Dartmouth’s system (based on quarters) is different from what GW is proposing; Dartmouth is an Ivy League school located in bucolic New Hampshire, where summers are more mild than in downtown Washington, D.C.

Supporters of the new calendar might argue that I quote selectively from the report or that the report adequately answers all of my questions. I appreciate these comments and welcome this criticism. It’s difficult to talk about this report without looking very closely at the particulars and details. While the report does address some of the questions above, I do not feel it does so adequately or convincingly. Everyone should come to his or her own judgements after thoroughly reading the report.

University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg has encouraged everyone – faculty, students and staff – to read the report. He recently said that he wished that participation at the Student Association’s Town Hall Meeting was “more robust.” Please heed his good advice. On its Web site, the Alternate Academic Calendar Committee says students can give feedback about the report by sending e-mail to altcal@gwu.edu. The web address for the report is http://www.gwu.edu/~newsctr/alternative_calendar/home.html.

-The writer is a graduate student in English.

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