Earlier graduation draws protest from students

In what has proven to be a highly controversial decision, over 85% of college faculty present at a recent meeting voted to shorten the spring semester’s reading period and reduce the length of senior week in order to move graduation one week earlier.

According to administrators and faculty, the move was made so that students and faculty can begin their summer activities earlier and so that graduation seniors can start their post-college careers sooner. Most other small liberal arts colleges, they point out, hold graduation earlier than Swarthmore did.

Tom Stephenson, a chemistry professor and the college’s provost cited the length of time between classes and graduation as a driving factor. “Thirty days is an awfully long time between the end of classes and graduation,” he said. “People really need to get on with their lives and faculty need to move on with what they need to be doing during the summers.”

But the reaction from students has been overwhelmingly negative, with many expressing concern at the decrease in time allotted for studying and end-of-year events, criticizing the lack of student consultation when designing the new calendar, and decrying the seemingly abrupt announcement of the change. A Moodle poll conducted by Student Council after the decision was announced registered 90 percent of participants as being opposed to the changes, with 75 percent of participants indicating that they were “strongly opposed.” A total of 702 students participated in the poll, slightly less than half of the student body, but one of the highest turnouts out of any StuCo poll. Several hundred more students voted in this poll than have voted in any online election for StuCo.

“Now that the results are out, it is clear that many students find this change problematic,” said StuCo co-president Jason Heo ’15. “I, personally, hope this could result in a change or a reconsideration.”

Peter Amadeo ’15 agreed, saying that if the faculty did not reconsider their decision in light of student opposition, it would be disheartening.

“If the student body overwhelmingly says we do not approve of this schedule, and they say no, I mean, that’s just very telling that they don’t really care about what we need or want or feel is necessary,” he said.

Students cited a number of reasons for their displeasure, both specific and general. Many pointed out that the new calendar would place a unique burden on graduating honors students, who in recent years have constituted roughly 24% to 37% of each class, and must study for honors exams—both oral and written—in addition to their standard course finals. Previously, students had six days between the end of spring semester classes and the beginning of exams. Now, they only have three.

“I think that our honors program is a fair argument for why we feel rushed, or why an honors student might feel rushed,” said Lauren Barlow ’15, who said that the existence of the college’s honors program made it difficult to compare its schedule to that of its peer institutions.

“I’m in the admissions office, and we have to speak to what makes Swarthmore unique,” she said. “One of the things that makes Swarthmore very unique is our honors program. So to give students more time for an experience that this college offers, the fact that we graduate a week later makes sense.”

Others worried that the new calendar could create challenges for international students, particularly those graduating next year, whose families may have already booked plane tickets and applied for visas based on the previous calendar.

“I know that it’s often easier for families coming from farther away to book plane tickets and apply for visas well in advance in order to attend their kids’ graduation,” said Anushka Mehta ’15. “While plane tickets are changeable, they often require extra payments or some sort of fees for the tickets to be changed, and once issued a visa one would need to reapply to get those dates changed.”

Mehta said that the new calendar might also put additional pressure on international students in future classes. In particular, she expressed concern that they would have decreased time to go through the process of obtaining optional practical training in order to remain in the United States for work experience, to apply for work permits, or to obtain new student visas if they plan on attending graduate school.

“Visas and paperwork are always difficult to work out and it’s hard to make sure you’ve got everything in order before you graduate, but with less time to do it in and more work to focus on, I imagine it will make life a little bit more difficult,” she said.

In addition, many students felt that the reduced study time would burden more than just honors students and international students. Pointing out that spring semester classes already last one week longer than do fall semester classes, some argued that the spring semester was inherently more stressful, and thus merited the additional time.

“Spring semester is longer, it is colder, it is generally harder, it is darker, and we get to finals week and all of us are struggling,” said Amadeo. “I personally don’t think it would be possible for me to get my work done in the time allotted.”

Alex Jimenez ’16 agreed that the longer reading period was necessary. “The fact of the matter is Swatties are usually inundated in work. We use reading week as a way of catching up,” he said.

Stephenson said that the college was considering eliminating the extra week of classes from the spring semester, an alternative that many students have suggested. But he said that making such a shift was more complicated given the school’s commitment to keeping its calendar roughly synchronized with that of Haverford and Bryn Mawr.

“That would be a tri-college discussion,” he said.

Stephenson could not say if the faculty would reconsider the calendar shift, a decision that would be difficult given the need to plan the calendar for next year. He told students who wanted the calendar to be switched back that they ought to appeal to the faculty directly. But he argued that the new schedule was workable, and said that he would follow up with department chairs to ensure that they carefully consider these concerns and would encourage professors to take steps to make sure students are not overwhelmed.

“The faculty thinks that this is manageable for students given the workload that students have,” he said. “I understand that students don’t think that is correct. But I can tell you that everybody here, the administration, the dean’s office and the faculty, are committed to making this schedule work.”

Barlow was not convinced. “Professors already abuse reading week like crazy,” she said, pointing out that it was not uncommon for professors to schedule assignments to be due or even hold make-up classes during reading period. “It’s clear the professors are already out of touch. I do not trust the departments to make the right decisions for student welfare.”

But Diane Anderson, associate professor of educational studies and the associate dean of academic affairs, disagreed that faculty were out of touch, and that they would not make adjustments based on the new schedule. “I don’t think that faculty would have approved this change without understanding that a change like this implies other kinds of changes,” she said.

In addition, she argued that the reduced reading period would reduce stress. “Given my experience in this office, I think that as many students are stressed by the length of time as they are sometimes by a shorter period of time when it comes to studying for any sort of exam,” she said. “For some of our students, that length of time really becomes a time not of studying but of being stressed about exams and studying.”

Still, students cited a variety of non-academic reasons for the extended period of time between the end of classes and graduation. Reading period, they point out, plays host to a variety of end-of-year extracurricular and social events, ranging from the Large-Scale Event, Worthstock, and Kilbasefest, to student performances, like the end-of-year dance concert.

“All of these things have to take place, according to this new plan, in three days,” Amadeo said. “We have to rest, study, and go to these events in three days. Which just doesn’t seem plausible to me.”

Mehta agreed, saying that the reduced time would be particularly onerous for seniors. “It’s like we’re given a choice — enjoy your last few weeks with your peers of four years, or work your butt off for all those exams after four years of hard work,” she said. “But not both, never both.”

In particular, many expressed dismay at the reduction in senior week, now four days instead of seven.

“Even if you’re not honors, senior week seemed to be this culminating experience everyone looked forward to at the end of their Swarthmore career, and I feel robbed of that,” said Amadeo, adding that he did not think “giving seniors one week to use the money that they as a senior class have raised to say goodbye to Swarthmore, say goodbye to their friends,” was an unreasonable request.

Anderson did not disagree. “I think seniors’ interest in spending time with their friends, to say goodbye, is justified,” she said.

But she suggested that there were more productive ways for students to do so.

“I wonder, if that is a strong desire, if students could suggest some programming at other times that would bring seniors together for non-academic purposes,” she said. “Is it necessary to wait until four years are over to spend time with friends?”

Indeed, Anderson and Stephenson both asserted that this decision was not made in spite of the students, but for them.

“I think the faculty adopted this schedule really thinking it was in the best interest of everybody,” said Stephenson, who in an email to the Class of 2015 said that the new calendar was meant to reduce the burden on graduating seniors, “eager to begin new endeavors.”

Anderson also cited the additional time seniors had to remain on campus as part of the rationale for the reduction. “Increasingly, there have been students who haven’t been at graduation because they need to start their jobs or whatever their post-graduation plans are before graduation,” she said.

Both Amadeo and Barlow said that this burden was largely fictitious.

“I have never spoken to anyone who had that problem—ever,” Amadeo said.

Barlow agreed, arguing that such reasoning was created “when trying to find other reasons to make this a student issue.”

In addition, many students have pointed out that there are many other schools, particularly those that are on trimester or quarter systems, with graduation dates that are far later than Swarthmore’s whose seniors do not appear to have trouble finding employment, including the University of Chicago, Carleton College, Northwestern University, and Dartmouth College (though most of these colleges also begin later in the fall). In addition, Williams College, which is on a semester system, held graduation this year on June 8, one week after Swarthmore’s commencement.

These objections play into a larger charge against the curriculum committee and faculty—that it did not properly consult with students in designing a new calendar. Other than the three student representatives who sit on the curriculum committee, no students were formally consulted before the change was decided upon and announced. Student representatives on the curriculum committee are supposed to keep meeting details confidential.

“Students are usually very much engaged in the community, activism, and the school in general,” said Jimenez. Here, he said, that was not the case.

“I was blindsided,” he said. “It was a surprise.”

Stephenson acknowledged that the views of students and the needs of seniors were not studied, something he says was an error. “It was a mistake to have not at least heard what the student thoughts were on this particular issue in advance,” he said.

But Stephenson still asserted that curricular matters are an area “where clearly, the faculty make decisions,” and criticized the notion that there were ulterior motives or sinister intentions behind the decision. In particular, Stephenson rejected the suggestion by some students that the new calendar was constructed to save the school money, saying that the topic of money never came up in discussions about the new schedule.

“That’s categorically false,” he said.

Still, faculty point out that there was another reason that this change was made — so that they can have more time over the summer to pursue their own projects. The summer is a valuable time for professors to conduct research, often alongside students. This change, many argue, will make doing research easier.

“It will give them an additional week to stop and think, clean up after the semester, and begin to get organized for the summer travel that they do for their research or the meetings that they’ve had to postpone with colleagues at other schools,” said Anderson, who felt that the change would help her own academic work. “And, quite frankly, still have time in August to spend a week or so on vacation with their families.”

Amadeo agreed that the new calendar would work to the advantage of the faculty. But he said that the lopsided nature of the new calendar’s benefits was further reason to criticize the process by which the new calendar it was constructed, and consequently, the new calendar itself.

“It’s important to realize that the faculty voted on this, because really, there aren’t many negative consequences for most of them,” he said. “They all get a week more of their summer, either research or vacation.”

The gains of the faculty, Amadeo said, came at the expense of students.

“From the perspective of a rising senior, we have four weeks to study for our exams, take our exams, possibly do our honors exams if we’re honors, and say goodbye to our home and friends for four years,” he said. “They want to take one of those four weeks away.”

Stephenson disagreed that the interests of the faculty and students were in opposition. “The interests of the students are to have a vibrant, professionally active faculty who are energized and ready to be engaged with them in the classroom and in the labs and in the seminar rooms and during their office hours, both during the summers and during the academic years,” he said. “To do that means to have as rationale an allocation of time as we can during the spring semester.”

5 Responses to "Earlier graduation draws protest from students"

  1. Rebecca  June 8, 2014 at 1:45 PM

    Yes Peter and Lauren, thank you so much for voicing your opinions! I'm glad the students are at least getting a bit of a voice in this now. Is there any hope at all for a reversal?

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  2. Justin  June 8, 2014 at 1:49 PM

    This is obvious bull$hit and you can quote me on that.

    Just another way the administration is making it impossible for me to recommend Swarthmore to anybody I care about. Why would I encourage my friends and their children to attend a school that cares so little for the quality of life of its students.

    Swarthmore has become a hell in the last 3 years, and with the current administration it's only going to get worse.

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  3. Graduate  June 8, 2014 at 8:11 PM

    Gotta agree with Justin.

    Also another important point which hasn't been addressed is the fact that no corresponding cut in tuition has been announced, despite the fact that a week is being cut from the academic calendar. Not to mention that tuition continues to increase without any justifiable explanation (outpacing the rate of inflation) and yet the College refuses to increase in spending, or to even move beyond the lowest end of its target spending rates, when clearly the campus, students, and faculty are in dire need of some TLC.

    All in all, Swat sux.

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  4. William Fedullo '16  June 9, 2014 at 11:09 AM

    It wouldn't be half as bad if an actual honest explanation (eg faculty research time) was offered instead of the patronizing chorus of "this is for your own good."

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  5. 2016  June 15, 2014 at 9:07 PM

    "Indeed, Anderson and Stephenson both asserted that this decision was not made in spite of the students, but for them."

    Half of the students voiced their opinion, and over 90% of those students strongly disagreed with the decision.

    It's worth considering why there such a large disconnect between what is seen as beneficial for the students and what the students actually would find beneficial.

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