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An open letter to the faculty on the spring semester calendar

in Op-Eds/Open Letter/Opinions by

Dear faculty,

I’m writing this letter upon the suggestion of President Hungerford, with whom I met this week. I spent all summer having meetings about the academic calendar change with whoever would talk to me: the dean of students, the provost, the dean of academic affairs, the Honors program coordinator, members of the Alumni Council, and various other faculty and staff.

Two prevailing facts have emerged from these meetings. First, this decision is undeniably flawed. Second, only the faculty have the power to change it.

When I met with the provost on May 30, he was clear: nothing could be discussed or changed until the September 12 faculty meeting. And now that has come, but the time for emotional pleas has passed. You have heard it all before. We are worried about Honors. We are heartbroken about senior week. The statistics — 90 percent opposition — speak for themselves. But it is too late in the game to talk about ideals — I am writing to you now from a position of pragmatism.

I am not asking you to scrap the idea altogether. I understand why it is beneficial for the calendar to be shortened. But I am asking you to delay the implementation, because if you don’t, things may deteriorate very quickly — indeed, they already have. They are falling apart around our ears. Honors students are dropping left and right. And those of us that are sticking with the program (which I am, against my better judgment) are terrified about our last week at Swarthmore. Many of us are seriously doubting whether the emotional turmoil will be worth it.

In each of my meetings with members of the administration, it has been suggested that the Honors program may be overhauled, and lessened, to accommodate this change. One administrator proposed that spring Honors seminars end a week before other courses. Another suggested that Honors students be exempt from Course exams. I think this is reckless implementation, a sign of the administration scrambling to make ends meet. I appreciate the suggestions, truly — but we have signed up for Honors because of the rigor, not in spite of it. I am worried about devaluing our excellent program and its legacy.

Our Honors program is so well-respected by others because it is respected by us. We take good care of it. But I believe, and I can only hope that you’ll listen, that this will be its death blow. I have shared this deep concern with Craig Williamson, the Honors coordinator, and he agrees that student concerns about the shortened calendar may adversely affect Honors participation, which has already fallen significantly in the past two years. I can only hope you’ll listen to him, too.

All the events that previously happened during reading week, social and academic alike, will still happen, if Swarthmore remains Swarthmore. The loss of a sufficient reading period, then, which was hardly luxurious to begin with, will yield a period of untold stress. There is no defense against the cruelty of time. It ticks on. But there is generosity, and comfort and this new schedule offers us none of that. I truly wonder how we will cope.

The concerns extend beyond academic, as I’m sure you know. I don’t want to rehash the arguments here, but there are many: social, athletic, artistic, psychological. The Class of 2015 is in the process of compiling a concise list for you, so that I do not oversaturate this letter, but know that there are many wide-ranging reasons, each more important to us than the next.

It is the faculty’s responsibility, as I gather from the provost’s latest email, to discuss the implementation of this new schedule. I understand that this seems, at present, the pragmatic thing to do. But I wonder, and worry, whether we should not instead abort before it’s too late. There are so many issues for you to consider, not all of which are coming from the students. As one professor pointed out to me, Phi Beta Kappa selections will have a tightened turnaround, not to mention departmental retreats, which will need to be shoehorned into that week as well.

I am worried about going blindly forward with this change, without at least a year of proper scrutiny. I feel confident that you will do your best to anticipate all of these issues, but there’s always the chance that you’ll miss something. It feels very much like the spring of 2015 will be an experiment of a semester, checking whether this calendar works or not — and the test subjects are our educations, our futures, our memories.

This troubles me. We do not wish to be unceremoniously booted out of the amphitheater, diploma in hand. It is my fear, and the overwhelming fear of my peers and now several of my professors, that this will be the case, despite administrative toiling to simplify and streamline.

As students, we understand the reasons that ending the semester early is beneficial to faculty. We even understand, though we may not agree, why it is supposedly beneficial to students. But if we want to support a flourishing Honors program, and if we want the Class of 2015 to graduate with fond memories of Swarthmore, rather than the bitter resentment that has been in our hearts since May, then we have made a horrible mistake, and only you can fix it.

While I am personally on good terms with the administration, I cannot deny that the student opinion there is one of distrust. But not the faculty. You are our professors, advisors, mentors — occasionally, if we are lucky, you are our friends. We feel heartened that this decision lies with you. We feel hopeful, because we know you care.

And so I ask you, at the very least, to revisit the conversation in your meeting this Friday. If you decide, against significant student opinion, that this is still the right choice, I will not question you any further. I will, perhaps, be disappointed, anxious, afraid. But I will at least know that our voices have been heard and considered by a group who cares about us. In these last few volatile years at Swarthmore, that is really all that we desire.

Patrick Ross is a senior at the college. 

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