DOCUMENTS OF THE GENERAL FACULTY
Following are the minutes of the General Faculty meeting of Monday, March 25, 2013.
MINUTES OF THE SPECIAL GENERAL FACULTY MEETING OF MARCH 25, 2013
Sue Alexander Greninger, Secretary
General Faculty and Faculty Council
MINUTES OF THE SPECIAL GENERAL FACULTY MEETING OF MARCH 25, 2013
The special meeting of the General Faculty was held on Monday, March 25, 2013, at 3:15 PM in the Hogg Memorial Auditorium. President William C. Powers Jr. called the meeting to order and reminded voting faculty members to check in and receive their ballots if they had not already done so. After announcing that ballots would only be accepted after discussion had been completed and the final question called, he read the following proposed major legislation (D 10139-10247) to the members:
The University Academic Calendar Committee proposes two amendments to the academic calendar and the Principles for the Development of the Academic Calendar:
The president reported that the proposal was approved by the Faculty Council on January 28, submitted to the voting members of the General Faculty on February 25, and received sixty-one protests by the March 8 deadline. He explained that when major legislation receives twenty-five or more protests in a vote of the General Faculty, a special meeting of that body must be called for discussion of the issues, followed by a vote of those present at the meeting. He further explained that the outcome of the meeting’s vote, along with his recommendation, must then be forwarded to The University of Texas System for consideration.
- That we include a fall break to occur on the Monday and Tuesday of the ninth week of the fall semester each year.
- That, to maintain seventy days of instruction in the fall semester, we begin the fall semester the fourth Monday of August. (In accordance with existing principles.)
President Powers invited Professor Diane Bailey (information, chair of the University Academic Calendar Committee) to speak on the proposed legislation. Professor Bailey reported that a number of institutions currently provide a fall break, including Yale University, University of Michigan, Indiana University, Purdue University, Cornell University, Brown University, Harvard University, and Notre Dame University. The fall breaks provided at these institutions vary in length from one day to a week and were initiated at varying dates from a year ago to over 100 years ago. She said the students here at UT Austin shared the concerns of student leaders in many of these schools, as well as student health advocates, student advisors, and mental health counselors “that students would benefit mentally and physically from having a short break immediately after midterms.” To devise the current proposal, Professor Bailey indicated that UT Austin students researched the academic calendars of over twenty universities and decided they wanted the break to provide an opportunity for students to regroup after midterms, which presumably would be most beneficial for “freshmen as they came to terms with college workload and pace.” As a result, the students did not want the fall break to coincide with the weekend of the Texas-OU football game or to extend their current Thanksgiving holiday break. Professor Bailey noted that after UT students worked on a fall break proposal, “Student Government unanimously passed, in February of 2012, a resolution in favor of an October fall break.” The Graduate Student Assembly then passed a similar resolution in April of 2012. Following votes from these two student government bodies, the University Academic Calendar Committee decided to study and answer two important questions regarding the proposed fall break: (1) its feasibility and (2) its desirability.
As background, Professor Bailey explained that the University Academic Calendar Committee is charged with reviewing, creating, and updating the University’s Principles for the Development of the Academic Calendar, which the Office of the Registrar follows in developing the actual academic calendar each year. The Faculty Council and the University president must approve any changes proposed by the committee. She further explained that the principles require a minimum of seventy days of instruction each semester, which the fall semester just exactly meets and the spring semester comfortably meets with seventy-four. As a result, the fall semester cannot be shortened any further than its current length. Since winter holidays, reading days, exam periods, and graduation determine the end of the semester, the committee felt that any days used for a fall break would have to be added on to the beginning of the semester. After talking with the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and the Division of Housing and Food Services and receiving no objections from either, Professor Bailey reported that her committee decided that the fall break was feasible.
Professor Bailey recounted that the committee then wanted to determine desirability and “contacted thirty-eight stakeholders across the University, asking their opinions of the idea in general of a fall break.” These stakeholders included deans and associate deans from every college or school “whose titles suggested they had anything to do with student affairs.” The committee then contacted the “vice presidents in charge of University functions” and “the heads of groups, such as the Faculty Council, the Staff Council, and the Association of Academic Counselors.” Many of these leaders shared the idea of a fall break with members of their respective organizations and groups. Professor Bailey reported that all but five of the contacted stakeholders responded to the committee’s requests, and most of them were “highly positive and in support of the break,” with academic counselors strongly favoring the proposed idea. Professor Bailey noted that “the College of Liberal Arts polled all of its departments, and all were in favor as exemplified by thirty-two members of the English department writing in favor of the idea and none writing against.” Professor Bailey acknowledged that there was also feedback expressing opposition or concern about a fall break, mostly from the personnel in natural sciences and engineering. She said the opposition from these units was not totally negative, with engineering advisors, coordinators, and program directors predominantly favoring the fall break.
Professor Bailey explained that the committee then identified two primary concerns that were raised—the earlier start date for the fall semester and the timing of the two-day break in October. She said the committee studied eight major concerns to determine if the obstacles might have solutions or if they seemed to be insurmountable. Concerns regarding the early start of the fall semester were the following: conflicts with Gone to Texas, Freshman Reading Round-Up, and the Austin Independent School District (AISD) start date, as well as work load increases for employees still processing summer grades. The concerns regarding the timing of the break in October were the following: the one-week loss of lab time, as well as conflicts with recruitment, advising, and the family weekend schedule. Additional information was gathered from individuals who were responsible for or informed about each of the areas of concern, such as Mrs. Rod Caspers and Mr. Doug Bolin regarding Gone to Texas and Ms. Erika Fromm regarding staff workloads. After presenting this additional information to student government bodies, the committee requested that votes on the proposal again be held to ensure that the students still favored the fall break, given their increased awareness of objections and concerns that had been raised. Professor Bailey reported, “The vote from the Student Government was again unanimous, and a vote from the Graduate Student Assembly was nearly so as well.” The University Academic Calendar Committee subsequently “voted 10:0 in favor of a fall break proposal with one abstention.”The proposal was then introduced to the Faculty Council at its December 2012 meeting and put to vote at the January 2013 meeting, where Professor Bailey discussed the proposed legislation and answered. The proposal was approved by voice vote in January.
Professor Bailey continued her presentation by addressing the issues regarding laboratory classes, which received the most objections. She agreed that labs for introductory courses require significant set-up and need to be offered repeatedly during an entire week to accommodate all of the students enrolled in the course. While the proposal would maintain the number of full weeks in the fall semester, one of these weeks would be the first week of classes, which, given the necessary set-up, training for teaching assistants, safety training for students, etc., ends up not being available for student laboratory work, which therefore reduces the number of full laboratory experiences to only eleven weeks during the fall semester. She reported that research of peer institutions on this issue indicated that the following institutions all have only eleven whole weeks in their fall semesters: Yale University, Brown University, the University of Michigan, the University of California at Berkeley, Cornell University, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Ohio State University. In addition, Harvard University has only ten weeks in its fall term. Professor Bailey acknowledged that a change in the calendar would require some effort to adapt the lab schedule, but she didn’t think the issue was insurmountable. Following Professor Bailey’s presentation of the proposal, President Powers thanked her for her service on the committee, and then he opened the floor for questions.
Professor Alan Cline (computer science) asked if dormitories would be open and if students would receive free meals during the October break. Professor Bailey responded that she assumed dorms would be open, but that she did not know if students would receive free meals. Professor Cline commented that, while students living nearby are able to spend breaks or weekends at home, the semester would be extended for out-of-state and international students who could not go home during this break.
Professor Claus Wilke (integrative biology) asked if any thought had been given to the fact that faculty and graduate student employees are appointed for the fall semester starting September 1 and that their time working without appointment would be extended by two more days. Professor Bailey agreed with Professor Wilke’s concern on this issue but commented that the issue was a “preexisting” one. She noted the fact that faculty members receive nine-month salaries, saying this was “also an interesting aspect of university life.”
Professor Jonathan Valvano (electrical and computer engineering) added to the already-mentioned objections regarding laboratory classes that “it actually takes five working days to do a design lab” and that “the process takes more than one day.” Offering labs during the short week at the beginning of the semester would result in a lack of synchronization between different sections with the lecture presentation and ultimately result in a “reduction of education.”
Next, Dr. Blinda McClelland (biological sciences) asked if the committee had considered starting the fall semester on Monday and holding classes on Labor Day just as Texas A&M University does. Professor Bailey replied that idea had not been considered because most of the surveyed peer institutions include Labor Day as an official holiday. She did, however, mention that the committee had given some consideration to recommending that the Tuesday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving be time away from classes. However, the committee thought this period occurred too late in the semester to give students the break they wanted to regroup after midterm exams. In addition, she said the committee realized that this was not a good idea because it would “completely strand Monday,” and there was not “enough wiggle room in our calendar to give the entire week of Thanksgiving off.” She explained that the current proposal has UT classes starting on the same Monday as AISD; to add more days than the two that are proposed would require UT classes to start a week ahead of the start date for AISD.
Professor Paul Shapiro (astronomy) echoed the concern expressed earlier that two days would be added to the calendar without any additional compensation for faculty and staff. He was wondering if there could be a break without pushing the start date of the semester forward. He also noted that the University of Illinois provides “a break around the time of election week to give students a legitimate reason to be away from their school work pursuing their political aspirations… apparently, they’re able to fit it in without starting earlier.” And lastly, Professor Shapiro was concerned that international students might have visa restrictions that would prevent them from arriving two days earlier than they currently do. Professor Bailey indicated that there were other institutions that start their semesters even earlier than UT Austin does, and their students seem to be able to arrive in time. She reported that one of the University’s principles states that fall graduation, if it is held on a Saturday, could occur no later than Saturday, December 23. Based on this principle, combined with the one requiring a seventy-day minimum per semester, it would not be possible in some years to extend the semester by two days later into December. She noted that Yale only has sixty-four days in both the fall and spring semester, but she did not think this would be a viable solution for UT Austin. Although her committee could propose a change to the principles to lower the minimum number of days below seventy, she expected there would be objections about UT “offering less education for the same dollars.”
Professor Brian Evans (electrical and computer engineering) asked why classes could not be pushed back by a few days, when graduation is typically early in December and not anywhere near December 23. Professor Bailey said that it appeared the College of Engineering had a different fall graduation date than that for the overall campus. She also explained that she had based her calculations on the existing principles. Depending on which day of the week December 23 falls on in any given year, there may or may not be room to add a few days of instruction to the end of the semester, but this could not be done in all years. Professor Evans also explained that staff members in his department work tirelessly 9:00 to 5:00 to prepare the labs, and they need that first week to transition from the summer to the fall semester, to replace equipment, to upload software, etc. Professor Bailey clarified that the proposed break would only apply to students and not to staff. Professor Evans noted that starting the fall semester earlier shortens the time students, both graduate and undergraduate, have for summer internships or employment, which could be detrimental for some students.
Professor Linda Reichl (physics) asked about liability exposure when graduate students and lecturers work a whole week in August for which they are not appointed or, alternatively, about the cost to the University if these workers were actually appointed for that extra week. She further noted that science education in Texas high schools is not very good, and the time in a semester currently available is greatly needed to bring students “up to speed with the rest of the country.” If labs have to run all the way to the end of the semester, Professor Reichl expected students would experience elevated stress levels.
Professor Jon Olson (petroleum engineering) reminded the audience that teaching assistants do not work all the way to the end of their appointment date of January 15. As a result, he said he thought starting their work two additional days before the official appointment date would not really result in uncompensated work time. As an instructor of a freshman lab, he said he understood “the work that it would take other faculty to adjust their schedules.” However, he said adjusting the lab schedules “was only a one-time effort.” He believed the important question to ask was “Is there any value to fall break?” If one thinks there is value, then one needs to determine if meaningful content and experiences can be provided given the constraints. He added that he went to a school where the semester was only ten full weeks, and he did not think he received an inferior education.
Dr. Elaine Rich (computer science) was concerned that the “break creep concept” that applies to the Wednesday before Thanksgiving might also impact the week of the fall break. She asked if the committee had considered having the break on Thursday and Friday instead of Monday and Tuesday, thus being able to “make up that lab by Thursday and Friday of the first week.” Professor Bailey cited some data from Yale University, which indicated that most students would not “go away and have fun” during the break. She offered an anecdote about a professor of geology and geophysics who took students on a field trip during the break as one creative way students chose to use the break at Yale. Also, because a lot of recruiting happens during the same time, she thought a short break might afford seniors some time to work on their resumes or otherwise spend time in pursuit of their careers. With regard to which days of the week were used for the break, Professor Bailey explained that the committee wanted to maintain the balance between Monday/Wednesday/Friday classes and Tuesday/Thursday classes.
Professor Richard Ketcham (geological sciences) posed another question about the last class days in December and why they could not be used to make up the days used for a fall break. Professor Bailey said that final exams and the preceding reading days constitute “a fixed bundle” that the committee had not tried to reduce. Professor Ketcham agreed with previous comments that starting the semester early on Monday and Tuesday would still cause his lab classes to lose a full week of instruction, and that starting lab classes on the first Wednesday instead of the first Monday would provide needed preparation time. It might be possible to remove other days at a later time during the semester to balance out an equal number of lab days throughout the semester. He said this was not possible with the proposed fall break plan.
Professor Kenneth Gentle (physics) cautioned that the proposal would increase the difference in effectiveness of the fall semester compared to the spring semester and that the proposal “would impair the synchronization of the laboratories with the lectures and therefore give the students a less satisfactory experience.”
When President Powers asked if there were any other comments or questions from the faculty, Professor Evans commented that the proposed change would have “an impact on the core curriculum that will affect every student at the undergraduate level.”
President Powers again asked if there were other questions or comments from the faculty. Since there were none, he called the question and read again the exact wording of the proposed legislation. Because there had been no amendments offered for consideration, President Powers instructed the voting faculty members of the General Faculty to check the appropriate box on the blue ballot that pertained to the original proposal. He asked that the ballots be folded and passed to the aisle so the secretary could count the votes and report the outcome as soon as possible following adjournment of the meeting. The subsequent tally of the votes was fifty-eight against and twenty-seven in favor of the proposal.
The meeting adjourned at 3:05 p.m.
Distributed through the Faculty Council website on August 9, 2013.