Committee sees pros and cons with both systems
July 25, 2007
By Mary Reed
In a report delivered Tuesday to President Roderick J. McDavis, a committee charged with recommending whether Ohio University should stay on the current quarter system or switch to semesters elected not to recommend one or the other, saying a case could be made for either.
The 23-member Academic Calendar and System Committee -- which included 12 faculty members, three deans, two staff members, three students and three ex officio members -- has researched the topic since winter quarter. Professor of Communication Systems Management Phyllis Bernt, former chair of Faculty Senate, chaired the committee. Its five subcommittees focused on financial modeling; surveying Ohio University faculty, staff and students; interviewing representatives from key areas such as Admissions and Financial Aid; examining the experiences of other institutions; and communications.
"There are just so many dimensions to this and there are not any clear definitive kinds of things you can point to," Bernt said. "For example, no one was able to sit down and say quarters is a competitive advantage to us as an institution. And no one was able to say quarters is not a competitive advantage."
McDavis got his first look at the report Tuesday and was impressed.
"I'm very pleased with the hard work of the committee. They did solid research and gathered input from all key constituencies," McDavis said. "The report shows support for either alternative -- quarters or semesters. I look forward to discussing the findings with the committee and other members of the campus community."
The report states that any decision about quarters or semesters should be driven purely by academics and that no definitive research shows either system is superior. Nonetheless, equal numbers of committee members leaned each way, though for some it was a difficult call.
"If I had a choice and it were a perfect world, I would choose semesters," said committee member David Ingram, a professor of physics and astronomy who also serves on a Faculty Senate committee on educational programs and student affairs. "But the financial state of the university at the moment I don't think gives us a big enough buffer to make the change."
Sergio Lopez, professor of mathematics and chair of Faculty Senate leaned toward staying put. "I actually think that either system would serve us well, but considering that we are already in quarters, there is no overwhelming reason why we should switch," he said.
Campus-wide input, costs considered
The campus community was split along several lines (see a pdf of the tallied results). The committee's survey of faculty showed 44 percent favoring quarters and 47 percent favoring semesters, but the range of faculty opinions by college was wide, as was the range of faculty opinions by number of years teaching. Among students, 68 percent of undergraduate students favored quarters, but master's and doctoral students leaned more toward semesters (47 percent and 64 percent respectively). Among administrators, roughly equal percentages favored quarters, semesters or had no preference.
The report does make a number of recommendations that, if implemented, could put the university in a stronger position, should it go forward later with a switch. A foremost concern was making sure the financial infrastructure was sound and that a financial reserve be available to fund the change.
"The matters of concern that we have brought up in our analysis I think should be fixed anyway," Lopez said. "If we move to semesters one day, that would be great because we wouldn't have any impediments."
The committee was not charged with providing definitive costs for moving from quarters to semesters, but it did offer some numbers. For example, institutions that have made the switch have experienced short-term drops in enrollment. The report estimates at Ohio University, that short-term drop could translate into the loss of $4.7 million to $16.5 million. In addition, the estimated system conversion cost for both the Registrar's Office and the Office of Financial Aid is $2 million.
The committee recommended other changes that could ease a transition to semesters in the future. They include reducing the current 192-credit-hour graduation requirement to 180 hours, which is closer to the semester-hour equivalent, and figuring out how general education requirements could best be addressed in a semester system.
There was no one answer for how a change to semesters might affect faculty numbers. The report cites a range of scenarios for how many faculty members would be needed to handle semesters. Reports from institutions that have adopted semesters indicate faculty workloads remained the same or decreased with the exception of one unionized institution. All institutions contacted indicated that class sizes were not affected. The committee recommended hiring more group I faculty, however, whether the university remains on quarters or switches to semesters because Ohio University's group I faculty numbers are still low in comparison to its peer research institutions.
Academic calendar recommended to stay the same
The committee also made a recommendation on the academic calendar. By an 11-9 vote, members suggested staying with the current calendar -- starting the school year right after Labor Day and keeping the six-week winter break. Those favoring the current calendar said its advantages included faculty and student opportunities for research and the jump it gives students on internships or seasonal employment during winter break.
"If you're trying to attract students, being a little different is actually good," Lopez said of the calendar. "Standardization has many good things, but then there is the fact that there might be nothing distinctive about you."
McDavis said the administration will take a careful look at the report and talk further with constituent groups, after which he will have a better idea of the timeline for making a final decision.