Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Just over a year after a drastic change to the spring schedule was reversed by faculty vote, it was announced that faculty would again be voting on a new schedule for the spring semester, to be implemented in May 2017. The Daily Gazette would like to voice our concerns about the proposed changes one last time before the faculty vote on Friday, October 23.
The revival of this calendar change is frustrating for many reasons. First, there has been little acknowledgement of the events that led to the calendar change originally proposed in 2014 being reversed. When the original change was announced in May 2014, it was met with what Provost Tom Stephenson acknowledged was an “overwhelmingly negative student response.” In a Student Council poll of 702 students, 75% “strongly opposed” the change, while an additional 15% “opposed” it. This kind of student consensus is rare around any issue at Swarthmore, but the results here were clear.
These were not merely complaints made on social media or at Sharples: the senior class, led by Patrick Ross ‘15, Lauren Barlow ‘15, Peter Amadeo ‘15, Rehana Omardeen ‘15, and Tim Vaughan ‘15, prepared a two-page document for the faculty that outlined concerns about the changes. Craig Williamson, Professor of English Literature and Honors Program Coordinator, acknowledged along with other faculty members that at the time of decision, the student body “hadn’t really been involved in the change, or invited to respond to it.” Despite being ignored by decision-makers, students collectively worked to ensure their voices were heard.
We appreciate that the registrar’s office made a small effort to involve student voices in potential changes this year, by notifying the classes of 2017, 2018, and 2019 of the two new calendar options and inviting them to provide feedback. However, we do not believe this effort is enough. The changes proposed were not framed as two alternatives to our current spring schedule. Rather, the shorter schedule is titled “default” while another is called a “balanced” option. In fact, according to Stephenson’s email, the faculty has already voted to move commencement earlier, which means a full reading week and exam period would be impossible. While the administration has paid lip service to the idea of student input, such a fait accompli means they do not seem to value it.
Setting aside the history of this schedule conflict and the way it has been presented to students this year, we still have many concerns about the proposed changes in both the default calendar and balanced calendar. Many of these objections can be found in the editorial we wrote on the eve of the faculty vote last fall, but we would like to discuss them again here.
Decreasing enrollment in the Honors program has been a concern for years: the program is a major differentiator among similar liberal arts colleges, and it is troubling that fewer and fewer students are choosing to participate. According to the Phoenix, the number of students who completed the program has dropped from an average of 112 each year from 2008 to 2012 to fewer than 80 students in 2014.
From conversations with fellow students who have dismissed the idea of doing Honors or who have dropped the program after enrolling, it appears that few students object to the rigor of the program: rather, it is the timing. Students want to ensure that they have time to not only prepare for Honors exams, but also spend time with classmates and reflect on their years at Swarthmore without the pressure of work.
Stephenson describes the two to two-and-a-half weeks between the end of course examinations and commencement as an “unacceptable situation.” If this is the primary motivation for the change, it seems as though the decision is based on creating a more acceptable situation for non-Honors seniors at the expense of Honors students.
In both proposed schedules, there are only four days between the end of Honors examinations and commencement: while the balanced schedule allows for more time to study for Honors exams, it does not give time after for the exam-takers to properly socialize and say goodbye to friends made over the past four years.
Senior week offers a crucial social capstone to the Swarthmore experience in the same way that Honors offers an academic one. Student uproar about the removal of a week of leisure and relaxation is not petty, as senior week is one of the few opportunities Swarthmore students have to be around each other without the pressure of coursework or other commitments. Swarthmore is one of the most academically rigorous schools in the country, and wanting a week to decompress after four years of pushing ourselves to our limits is not unreasonable.
While we understand the faculty’s concerns, we would like to seek alternative solutions. Some solutions would include exempting Honors students from course examinations (thereby allowing the course and Honors examinations to be held concurrently), decreasing the length of the spring semester by one week, or making it optional for faculty members to attend graduation.
It may be difficult for faculty and administration to see the value of those few days at the end of the year, but for many of us, it makes all the difference.