The first in a series of editorials addressing the alternative academic calendar.
University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg first presented his concept for an alternative academic calendar nearly one year ago to the Faculty Assembly. After much debate, GW is now weeks away from forming an implementation committee that will develop specific suggestions to phase in a mandatory summer session. The idea proposed only a year ago, although still in the theoretical stage, stands to fundamentally alter the fabric of the GW educational experience.
Students and faculty members have expressed concerns that vary across the board concerning the proposed changes to the academic calendar, but few realize the reasons for what some dub Trachtenberg’s “radical” thinking.
The administration’s perspective was clarified during a Hatchet meeting with Trachtenberg and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Donald Lehman. Basically, the University operates in a finite universe of finances, made up mostly of endowment and tuition funds. Trachtenberg explained that this current universe of available funds is too small for “an institute of our ambition.” The many parts that make up GW constantly seek new ways to improve and request the resources to do so from the administration. Among the many projects the administration is trying to find funding for are: new science laboratories valued at $50 million, a $500 million dream facility on the old hospital site including facilities for a new School of Public Health and Health Sciences, new engineering facilities and more housing. Improvements of any variety cost money, and without creative thinking there is no more money to spread around. Some budget cuts have already been implemented, and the University says it is about $700 million in debt.
The basic notion of a mandatory summer session is to increase the efficiency of University facilities is sound and shows forward thinking by Trachtenberg. GW is a university constantly improving and expanding, and the only way to satisfy the ambitions of University constituents is to find new avenues to generate revenue. While revenue is not the end-all-be-all of higher education, without increased revenue it is hard for a university to improve.
“My focus is, how do I pay for the dreams and aspirations of our students and faculty in the next generation?” Trachtenberg said.
After a $550 million-fundraising campaign and an economy just beginning to revive itself, University alumni and donors are pretty much tapped out. Seeing this, Trachtenberg developed his theory for a mandatory summer which, in conjunction with a switch to a four-by-four credit system, will enable GW to admit at least 1,000 more students and generate a minimum of $10 million of additional funds each year, in perpetuity.
It is precisely this outside-the-box mentality that is crucial of a university president, even if the calendar change is not the right move for GW. The task ahead is to determine whether Trachtenberg’s ideas can be successfully implemented at GW. The University community must come together to see if we can get this theory to work. The focus should be on “can it work” as opposed to “why it won’t work” because it is in the interest of all students and faculty for GW to improve, which is the basic notion behind the concept. And if a trimester system is not the answer, there needs to be new ideas to help GW improve.
We agree that the agrarian calendar of education with four-month summer breaks is past its time and deserves serious reevaluation. However, the consequence of implementing a calendar change creates many intriguing dilemmas the community would need to overcome. What Trachtenberg quickly rebuffs as “tactics” we consider crucial to the very concept of understanding the theory. He is too quick to suggest that most of the student life and faculty continuity uncertainties can be solved, but there is only so much creative thinking to go around. Solving the revenue dilemma will no doubt lead to new, perhaps even more insurmountable problems that are harder to define.
One of these problems might be the destruction of the “campus atmosphere” that the current administration has worked so hard to solidify. A major element of the student experience centers on the relationships between students and the organizations and groups in which they participate.
Our View: A mandatory summer session is precisely the type of thinking needed to improve the University, but the logistics of implementation might prove damaging to cherished aspects of the GW experience.