T. Neil Sroka: Perceptions could defeat four-by-four again

Few topics have fostered more campus discussion than the University’s proposed move to a four-by-four curriculum. Indeed, even fewer topics have had more ink spilled on them in the pages of The Hatchet over the past few years: a quick scan of the paper’s online archives reveals that more than 35 articles, columns and editorials have been written concerning the topic since it first emerged in November 2002, six of them (now seven) written in the past seven months.

For those who were still studying for AP exams or weren’t constantly hitting their “refresh” button on The Hatchet Web site when the issue first began, perhaps a quick history lesson is in order. Like all well-funded efforts at curriculum change, the decision to begin looking at the four-by-four system began at the behest of President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, following a speech given in November 2002. When viewed alongside some of the more radical calendar reforms he was proposing at the same time – which included switching to trimesters and a mandatory summer session for all undergraduates – SJT’s advancement of the four-by-four credit system looked downright conservative. Four-by-four meant curriculum changes, but not restructuring the way (and with whom) students lived and worked.

In truth, most of the president’s proposals were pretty “modest”: many schools work on trimesters, have four-by-four credit systems or even have required summer sessions. Few, however, had the entirety of the Trachtenberg triumvirate and, even if they had, none would have been able implement such a comprehensive plan in one fell swoop. Coupled with concerns that administrators might be trying to offer less of an education for the same tuition price, this reality led to an unsurprising rejection of Trachtenberg’s all-inclusive effort at calendar reform by a unanimous vote of the Faculty Senate in October 2003.

But those who expected the whole question of calendar reform to die when University administrators backed off from their early efforts in December 2003 were sorely mistaken. Just a few short weeks later, Trachtenberg was back at it again, proposing a possible winter session and extended summer offerings in January 2004 and pontificating on the effects his trimester system might have on federal financial aid before a U.S. Senate subcommittee two months later.

The next we heard of Trachtenberg’s big ideas after more than a year of relative dormancy, when the issue of the four-by-four class credit system returns to the University agenda. Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Donald Lehman announced the creation of a task force to study the matter at a meeting of the Faculty Senate in April 2005.

This, of course, brings us back to today, where every interested student, campus politico and dedicated faculty member is eagerly anticipating the findings of the four-by-four task force this April, a year after the group was first proposed and more than three years since the specter of the alternative calendar first began hanging over Rice Hall. Oiled with the blood of SJT’s previous effort at more radical reform, the wheels of change now seem to be working in administrators’ favor, with many students and faculty members seemingly positive on the proposed plans for reform.

While this reception is good in itself, it is important that those pushing the change learn from the mistakes of the past and work harder to answer the questions that plagued – and eventually killed – earlier efforts at curriculum reform. Most importantly, those putting forward the current four-by-four idea must show how the switch to a four-credit per class system will affect GW’s academic rigor. While it remains important that any resulting change properly accommodates the special relationship students have with the city, in matters of curriculum reform as important as these, academics must come first.

Before faculty (and students) can truly support the change, the University should establish firm metrics to judge the changes to course content and structure necessary in a post-three-credit world. In the end, administrators’ most recent effort at reforming GW shows that they have learned to ask for smaller, more moderate change when asking to restructure something as fundamental as the credit system. However, unless SJT and company establish that the bottom line has not been placed ahead of education, their plans might stall once again.

-The writer, a senior majoring in political

science, is a Hatchet columnist.

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