In an email to the student body on Friday, the University announced that it would be implementing changes to the academic calendar in Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 and seeking student input on proposed finals schedules.
University Registrar and Assistant Vice Provost Tom Black explained in an email to The News-Letter that the new academic calendar is meant to provide consistency across University divisions.
“The new academic calendar was started as the initial step of the Student Services Excellence Initiative (SSEI) for Registration, since there were 24 different calendars throughout all JHU divisions. Each divisional Registrar worked closely with University Administration and SSEI staff to coordinate their calendars for the next 10 academic years,” Black wrote.
According to the initial email, the University seeks to align the undergraduate calendar with the activities of other schools under the University umbrella so that students can pursue joint degrees across the various academic units.
However, Derek Schilling, professor and chair of German Romance and Languages and Literatures department, warned against standardizing the University’s calendars without evaluating potential curricular effects.
“There can be a real need to rearticulate a calendar to stay within the guidelines for an accrediting board, and things like this. At the same time, if you are to institute a change without finding out first what the impacts will be, it’s impossible to figure out if this is beneficial to the institution as a whole,” Schilling said. “There are distinct institutional histories behind these entities and it’s important to respect those histories and to understand what the impacts are of instituting changes across the board.”
The changes to the Fall calendar include starting on the Monday before Labor Day and a two-day Thursday and Friday fall break. The last day of classes would fall on a Wednesday, rather than the preceding Friday. The school will move final exams to begin the following Monday, designating Thursday, Friday and the weekend as reading period. Students were asked to vote on whether they would prefer to have seven contiguous days of exams or if they would prefer to not have exams over the weekend.
The University changed the spring calendar so that the semester will commence on the fourth Monday in January, unless this day falls after the 25th of the month, in which case classes will start the preceding Tuesday.
“On years when classes start on a Monday, the week following classes, week 14, will include 4 reading days and a Design Day. On years when classes start on a Tuesday, the last day of classes will be held on a Monday on week 14 to be followed by 3 reading days and a Design Day,” the email reads.
Design Day is a day designated for engineering students on design teams to present their projects and research from the semester.
The Spring proposal asks students to consider whether they would like seven straight days of exams starting on either Saturday or on Monday, or if they would prefer to not have exams on the weekend and instead during the following week.
Michael Falk, vice dean of undergraduate education at WSE, spoke at the Student Government Association (SGA) meeting on Tuesday to clarify questions about the calendar.
“The upper administration under Ron Daniels and the University plan wanted all the academic calendars for the different units aligned, with the idea being that this will facilitate students or programs that cross divisions, so students can be enrolled in things that all start and end at the same time,” Falk said.
He added that the beginning and end dates of each semester are set by the upper administration. Moreover, the total number of days in a year cannot be changed because this is mandated by federal law; he can only set the time of the breaks, reading period and final exams.
In an email to The News-Letter, Vice Dean for Undergraduate Education of KSAS Joel Schildbach added that the proposal is a reaction to these calendar dates set for the entire University.
“We are happy to hear student opinions on the entire calendar, including the start of each semester and the effect of the new calendar on the length of intersession, but unfortunately there are some changes that are beyond our influence,” Schildbach wrote.
In an email to The News-Letter freshman Clara Kochendoerfer, who is majoring in Biomedical Engineering, asserted that she appreciated most of the changes.
“Having a four day reading period will be really nice. Last semester I had my finals the first three days of finals week, so I only had the two days of reading period to study for them,” Kochendoerfer wrote.
In contrast, sophomore Steven Solar criticized the fact that the University was changing the academic calendar to begin with.
“Why do we feel the need to change the calendar at all? What was wrong with it?” Solar said. “What would we do with an extra day of fall break? People who live far away don’t want to fly home for two days and then fly back. Also, why don’t they give us a normal length reading period like other colleges? They claim it’s four days long, but they’re counting Saturday and Sunday. Then you could say every weekend is a two-day reading period.”
Schildbach shared a desire for this to be a fluid process, in spite of Black’s assertion that each divisional registrar had worked with the University to coordinate their calendars for the next 10 academic years.
“While the calendar for next academic year has to be determined soon, I’m open to reconsidering the details of the calendar again next year after we’ve experienced the new version of the fall semester,” Schildbach wrote.
Junior Jeremy Costin, who is double-majoring in Public Health and Economics, explained that he appreciated the schedule changes, as the Public Health major requires that undergraduates take 15 credits of their advanced course requirements at the Bloomberg School of Public Health (SPH).
“Next year I will be going to take some of my classes at the SPH,” Costin said. “It was a good idea to encourage students to take classes at other institutions that are in the Hopkins network, and to try to make it as and simple as possible.”
Costin also expressed appreciation for the University’s feedback form for asking for student input on the finals schedule. The form will take feedback until Thursday, Feb. 6.
“It’s nice to put the power in the students’ hands and see what they prefer,” Costin said.
The feedback form states that the new calendar has specific stipulations for half-semester courses in order to align with SPH, meaning that instruction in second half-semester courses in the Biomedical Engineering Department will overlap with reading period.
However, Solar, who is double-majoring in Biomedical Engineering and Computer Science, reacted negatively to how those in his major will be impacted.
“This is blatantly biased against BMEs, as no other major has half-semester courses. It’s incredibly unfair,” Solar said.
Kochendoerfer, while generally positive about the calendar changes, agreed with Solar that the calendar will harm those studying Biomedical Engineering.
“If the point of extending reading period is to give us more time to study for exams, continuing some classes during this period seems counterproductive. Given that I did not even know the school was considering changing the calendar, I do not feel like the school took my input when making the decision,” she wrote.
Schildbach explained in his email how the administration tried to weigh the competing interests of various majors in the proposal. He expressed hopes that the survey, in particular the open comment section, would provide guidance on how to achieve this balance.
“Adding one or two fall break days could serve as stress release for all students, but would also, by lengthening the term by a couple of days, decrease the chances that a student taking a half-semester class in BME or at Bloomberg would have to choose between taking a final for one course and attending the last lecture of the semester in another,” Schildbach wrote.
Schildbach offered possibilities for how undergraduates will benefit from the academic calendar.
“To be honest, in the near-term I’m unsure of the benefits. The changes may free up programs and departments to consider more half-semester offerings, which may ultimately benefit undergraduates broadly. I view opportunities to think creatively about how we teach as a positive,” he wrote.
Yet, Schildbach noted concern about the impact the new calendar poses to intersession. If Martin Luther King (MLK) Day fell on the fourth Monday of January, classes would start on the Tuesday before MLK Day. In this event, the instruction days for intersession will fall from 14 days to 11 days.
“I hope that we can preserve the best traits of intersession even if the period is shortened,” he wrote.
Schildbach stated that the administration consulted some undergraduates before designating the schedule changes and proposal, but that the online survey is the first time the University has reached out to students, staff and faculty across Homewood. He noted that he wanted more time and opportunities for feedback.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t have complete control over the timeline and there wasn’t much time between our getting some final questions answered and the date by which details must be finalized with the registrar,” Schildbach wrote.
Costin criticized the wording of the email that was sent out.
“I read the email multiple times and I still am confused on what they’re thinking and why the spring semester schedule should be changed,” Costin said. “They could’ve explained it a little bit better, or had students look at the proposed changes before sending it to the students to make sure it’s clear.”
Michelle Limpe and Katy Wilner contributed reporting to this article.