Column: Higher education in a post-industrial society

It used to be that tending the crops and looking after the livestock were more important than learning to read and add a column of figures. It made sense. The world, until recently, lived by agriculture. Even when societies acquired enough leisure time to teach their young formally, they still gave precedence to the crops and the back of the hand to the ABCs.

Thus was created the academic calendar, which still marches to the rhythms of an agrarian world. Fewer than 2 percent of Americans work in agriculture, and agricultural production is so internationalized that we now casually buy strawberries in November and corn on the cob in February. Yet we still operate our universities on a calendar designed for local farmers. I find this, at the beginning of the 21st century, hopelessly outdated, inefficient and dismaying. I want to change it.

Universities typically operate for slightly more than half the year – generally, two 14-week semesters. And aside from some summer-school programs, we barely use our facilities at all for three months of the year. This, it seems to me, wastes time that we could use for instruction; undervalues our facilities, which stand idle and, unlike fields, do not improve when they lie fallow; and costs us money, because we could actually enroll more students and earn more resources to invest in faculty and students if we operated more of the year.

Imagine that instead of two 14-week semesters each academic year, we had three trimesters – with, of course, appropriate vacations between them. Students and faculty would be on campus for only two out of the three trimesters. We could actually increase our enrollment at The George Washington University by at least a thousand students, yet have fewer students on campus at any one time. In that way, there would be less competition among our students for housing, classes and all our amenities, yet more income for the University and lower tuition for students. This would please, moreover, the city zoning authorities and our neighbors by reducing the University population at any one moment.

There are other advantages. By using the campus year round, it might be possible to offer some degrees in three years rather than four, which could save a great deal of money for our students and families. It also might open the possibility of offering combined bachelor’s and master’s degrees in certain areas of study. These are simply suggestions, my point being that once we begin to understand how much more beneficial use we can derive from our resources by not letting them go unused a good part of the year, many wonderful opportunities come into view.

I hasten to add that altering the University calendar is not easy business. There is, and always will be, a constituency for the way things have always been. Gaudeamus igitur was written in the 13th century, but many still know the words and music. A committee I asked to look into an alternative calendar has said the three-trimester calendar as I have proposed it would “virtually rule out a spring break,” an action that no university president, including this one, wants to take cavalierly. Perhaps the committee’s suggestion of two standard 14-week semesters plus one 10-week term would work better. It is too soon to say.

But the details, for the moment, concern me less than the idea. Both students and faculty, with obvious exceptions, still have the agrarian rhythm of education firmly in mind. I think this must change. I can make the case that as a matter of academic economics, GW would do better with more time given to instruction, just as I can make the case that some students would move through to their degrees faster and save themselves a great deal of money.

There is still another case. And it is that the entire American academic enterprise must retune itself to this day and age. We talk about living in the Information Age or in a post-industrial society, yet we approach higher education as a kind of half-timeredwings endeavor. Somehow, half the year will do. Yet this contradicts the importance that nearly everyone grants to higher education – that it has become a middle-class, and even affirmative action, entitlement because the education and the credentials represented by a degree are critical to anyone’s chances for success, let alone success itself. And what other enterprise, including the ones our graduates will enter once they have earned their degrees, runs according to the same outmoded calendar?

Perhaps that should be the final argument. Universities are not separate from their societies; they belong to them and help define them. That they have, and should have, special traditions is beyond dispute, including ample time for research and reflection. Such time and other traditions should be cherished and protected, and they will be. But they can flourish according to the imperatives of the day, and not according to the old warning to make hay while the sun shines.

The writer is the president of The George Washington University.

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