December 10, 2012


B. Fall Break Proposal from the University Academic Calendar Committee (D 10139-10147).

Faculty Council Chair Hilley announced that this proposal constituted major legislation and was only being presented for discussion and informational purposes at the meeting. She clarified that there would not be a vote on the fall break proposal until the January Faculty Council meeting.

Committee Chair Diane Bailey (information) presented the proposal, which asked for changes to the academic calendar beginning in academic year 2014. She indicated that the proposal was unanimously approved by Student Government in February and by the Graduate Student Assembly in March. The first change proposed was for a fall break to occur on Monday and Tuesday of the ninth week of the fall semester, immediately after midterm exams. The second change proposed was for the fall semester to begin on the fourth Monday of August to maintain seventy days of instruction. She noted that the only way to take any extra days off was to advance further into August, although the committee acknowledged that starting before Austin Independent School District classes began might be an issue for faculty members with children.

Dr. Bailey noted that Yale has also recently added a three-day October break to ease the challenge of eleven or twelve weeks of consecutive instruction. She further noted that the students did not want a break that coincided with the OU football game or Thanksgiving to ensure that the break could be utilized for mid-term regrouping, particularly for freshmen as they adjust to the pace and workload of higher education. She added that the fall break could possibly aid in improving student retention rates.

Professor Bailey explained that her committee first researched the feasibility of the proposal. The spring semester typically has seventy-four days of instruction while the fall semester usually only meets the minimum of seventy days as specified in the University’s Principles for the Development of the Academic Calendar. Therefore, if two days of instruction were cut for a fall break, Professor Bailey said those days would have to be made up at some other time. Since winter holidays, exam periods, and reading days determine the end of the fall semester, additional days would have to be added at the front end of the fall semester in order to meet the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s guidelines regarding public university or college start dates. The committee also conferred with the Division of Housing and Food to make sure that an earlier start date would not cause any problems for that unit.

With feasibility ensured, the committee next researched desirability by identifying thirty-eight University stakeholders, including individuals whose titles suggested involvement in student affairs, the Faculty Council, the Staff Council, Academic Counselors Association, and vice presidents of various University functions. According to Professor Bailey, most of the responses from the stakeholders were very positive, while some were not in favor of a fall break or expressed concerns. The committee investigated eight concerns with the appropriate entities on campus and found no obstacles that the committee deemed to be insurmountable. The Student Government and the Graduate Student Assembly were asked to vote on the proposal once more taking into account the concerns that had been raised. Professor Bailey reported that the fall break proposal was again approved with “nearly unanimous passage.” She summarized the support for the proposal by saying, “In short, an informed student legislative body and a faculty standing committee stand in support of a fall break.”

Professor Bailey then addressed a few particular concerns, such as moving the Gone to Texas event, which traditionally is held the evening before classes start, back to the Friday before the semester begins, with the caveat that this change might bear some cost, both monetarily and in the tone and tenor of the event.

The second concern she addressed pertained to lab classes, mainly in the College of Natural Sciences and the College of Engineering. These lab classes are set up by staff before each week and have to run for five consecutive days. To maintain the current twelve whole weeks of laboratory work, Professor Bailey indicated that one of those weeks would be the first week of classes, which might not work for all entities. She added that the argument that having only eleven whole weeks of labs in a semester might threaten accreditation was refuted by the fact that Yale, Brown, Michigan, UC-Berkeley, and Ohio State only have eleven weeks in their fall semester and Harvard even has only ten. The floor was then opened for Council discussion and questions.

The first comment came from Professor Ehud Ronn (finance) and was a request to make the Wednesday before Thanksgiving Day a vacation day, since most students take that day off anyway. Dr. Bailey responded that this was really more of a faculty than a student problem and repeated that the students favored an earlier break in the middle of the semester for regrouping and rest.

Professor Michael Domjan (psychology) expressed his concern about reducing lab hours. He strongly recommended that The University of Texas at Austin set the standard and not get by with minimum standards, even if some other universities do. If faculty members of a large unit, such as the College of Natural Sciences, believe that they need laboratory instruction as part of their instructional activities, Professor Domjan felt that the Council should support that unit’s wishes. He noted that students might choose to take time off for Austin City Limits, OU weekend, the F1 race, or the day before Thanksgiving on their own accord. Professor Domjan echoed the sentiment of Representative Dan Branch, that misimpressions about the University need to be corrected rather than perpetuated. Since most students are not on campus the day before Thanksgiving, Professor Domjan said the University may as well be closed and the day be declared an official holiday for the students. He also agreed that a break that late in the semester would be beneficial for working on term papers, finishing lab projects, and preparing various performances. Faculty could also benefit from an extra day for grading.

Chair Elect Hart added that labs in the first week of classes would not be feasible for engineering, since students and teaching assistants have to receive training before their first labs. She also noted that the two days before the semester starts are used for student orientation and other introductory events that help students to get to know their cohorts. Professor Bailey indicated the committee was not implying that these activities were not important, but it was merely asking that they be rescheduled. She also noted that the two-day break in October was not meant for students to catch up on projects but was meant to be a time for students to catch their breaths.

Professor Hans Hofmann (integrative biology), who teaches BIO 206L, a large introductory lab course, also confirmed that the first week of classes could not be used for effective lab instruction and that one week of labs would therefore be lost. He pointed out that this reduction would compound the disparity in length between the fall and spring semesters. He agreed that standards should be raised rather than lowered. Professor Hofmann said he felt he was speaking for all biology faculty members in opposing the idea of a fall break and that he had heard similar responses from faculty in chemistry. He also emphasized the fact that students are at a university and not a summer camp and should therefore be able to go through eleven weeks of continuous instruction.

Mr. Michael Redding (Graduate Student Assembly representative) noted that graduate students are the ones mostly teaching labs and that they also needed to catch their breaths around mid-semester and get grading done in addition to their own work. He reiterated that the Graduate Student Assembly voted unanimously for a fall break proposal.

Professor Jody Jensen (kinesiology and health education) thought that rescheduling labs should be a one-time issue that could be resolved. She stressed the importance of student retention and of the responsibility to train freshmen for success, which she perceived as being equally important as emphasizing lab experiences and course content. She thought that some content could be rearranged or merged and that faculty should give consideration to what helps students succeed. She encouraged faculty members to review what they were trying to teach and by what means rather than just relying on a traditional fixed schedule for presenting their course content.

Professor David Stein (molecular cell and developmental biology) referred to a four-day “boot camp” the College of Natural Sciences plans before classes start. Professor Bailey replied that she and her committee felt that the camp and University orientation could be coordinated and moved forward a few of days.

Dr. Vaaler (mathematics) expressed concern that moving the fall semester two days earlier might not allow enough time between the second summer session and the beginning of the fall semester, especially for faculty grading and for regrouping of everyone who participated in the second summer session. Professor Bailey reminded the faculty that the University currently did not adhere to its Principles for the Development of the Academic Calendar by violating principle #7, which states that the fall semester should begin on a Monday. She added that this issue might have to be addressed at some time in the future if the fall break proposal did not pass.

Professor Anthony Petrosino (curriculum and instruction) asked for more clarification as to why the fall semester, instead of starting earlier, could not end later. Professor Bailey explained that the University now has six days for final exams and two days for reading prior to the start of the exam period. She said the Principles for the Development of the Academic Calendar require that graduation take place on the Saturday before December 25. She explained there could be an extra week added to the fall semester for some but not for all years, depending on when that Saturday falls, and it was not feasible to have a fall break in some years but not in others. Professor Ellen Rathje (civil, architectural, and environmental engineering) declared that this would not be an issue for the College of Engineering, since it holds graduation the Saturday after classes end, rather than the Saturday before December 25. She also added that she did not think the University needed to align its schedule with the Austin Independent School District. Professor Bailey responded that the real solution to the length of the fall semester would lie in continuing the semester into January.

Professor Linda Reichl (physics) cautioned against cutting education of students in favor of a fall break.

Professor Gayle Acton (nursing) alerted the committee to the fact that nursing students supervise patient care in the hospital on Monday and Tuesday and would loose sixteen hours of in-hospital clinical experience if the break were approved. While the clinical learning could possibly be done by simulation, she voiced concern that this might affect accreditation. She also noted that, if the fall semester were to begin on Monday instead of Wednesday, those first two days of the semester would not be appropriate to use for clinical experiences as students would not have been trained yet on how to use the technology, equipment, computers, IV pumps, etc., which they would need in the hospital.

Mr. Michael Morton (president of the Senate of College Councils) announced that, while he favored a fall break in general, he did not support the current proposal. He explained that he had a lot of unanswered questions, and he was particularly concerned about the start date, integration program, and recurring costs for overtime wages. He asked who would be responsible for these additional costs. He did not want academic experiences to be hindered and students missing out on lab time that the faculty deemed necessary. While he agreed that students, especially freshmen, needed a break to unwind and for relaxation, he noted that the senate did not vote in favor of the resolution as proposed. Diana Bailey expressed her regret that she had not had an opportunity to discuss these concerns with him and that she hoped she would still be able to do so.

Professor Jon Olson (petroleum and geosystems engineering), a member of the calendar committee, wanted to remind the Council that, though comments at the meeting had been primarily negative, the committee had previously received a lot of positive feedback, predominantly from the College of Liberal Arts, but also from the College of Engineering and the College of Natural Sciences. He further noted that students may be present in class, but that instructors should ask themselves if their students were absorbing the covered material and what the value of a fall break would be for that. Would students learn more if they got a mental break? If so, is a fall break a priority, and if it is, how could it be implemented? He reiterated that students were hugely in favor of a break—in his opinion mostly for the right reasons—and that the break was supposed to be a service to education and not a detriment.

Professor Hofmann asked if there were any data that suggest that students learn more and are healthier if they have had a break. Have studies been done at other institutions? Professor Bailey responded that she had searched in vain for some research on that topic, and she would be very grateful to anybody who could find any relevant data. She cautioned, however, that it might be very difficult to conduct a before-and-after study about student stress levels, satisfaction, retention rate, etc., with so many variables involved.

Mr. Thor Lund (president of the Student Government) also spoke out in favor of a fall break, saying the time off from classes would help students catch up on their work. He was wondering if the University’s Counseling and Mental Health Center might have some data, for example, regarding whether student appointment requests increased in October. Professor Bailey mentioned that the Academic Counselors Association had surveyed counselors and received an overwhelming response in favor of a break, with their main concern related to timing around student advising, which could be resolved if the spring schedule would be made available two days earlier.

Professor Lesley Dean-Jones (classics) commented on the principle that the semester should start on a Monday might need to be reviewed. She thought a Wednesday semester start was a good idea for students, especially freshmen, so they could start the semester with a short week and then have a weekend to work out their workload. She wondered if the basis for that principle could be revisited.

  Professor Bailey mentioned that the four days of adds/drops, during which students did not need the professor’s approval, would fall into the first week with the proposed early start. She also noted that this would put the twelfth class day into the middle of the week, which would benefit the affected staff members. She also noted that some departments use the two days before the semester begins for administrative and faculty meetings and that they would have to call faculty back before the weekend, which the calendar committee did not regard as an issue.

Professor Domjan asked to what extent final exam dates were fully utilized or if the exam period might be shortened or if some of those days could be used for instruction? Professor Bailey responded that the six days of finals are fully scheduled, but she did not know if they were fully utilized.

Since there were no further questions or comments, Chair Hilley asked for a round of applause for Professor Bailey and her committee members. She thanked Council members for participating in an intelligent discussion about this legislation. She urged members to read the entire proposal and be prepared to vote on the issue at the January meeting.

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