September 28, 2016

Do UGA's Semesters Start Too Early?

Photo Credit: Joshua L. Jones

Aug. 10 might be a little too early to show up for classes, UGA’s University Council has decided.

After over an hour of deliberation and debate, council members voted Sept. 21 in favor of a proposal to push back the fall 2017 start date from Thursday, Aug. 10—which would have been the earliest start date in UGA history—to Monday, Aug. 14.

Many students and faculty grumbled about the current semester’s Aug. 11 start date, the earliest ever. Now, the proposal to push back next fall’s even earlier start heads to President Jere Morehead for either approval or veto. If vetoed, supporters of change to the fall 2017 academic calendar can appeal to the Board of Regents. But if approved, UGA faculty and students will gain a few extra days of summer—a time not only for vacation, but a critical time for experiential learning opportunities such as study abroad, research, internships, jobs, volunteer activities and more, according to a resolution brought forth by UGA’s Student Government Association.

The proposal the council passed was created by the Educational Affairs Committee; among its jobs is considering the registrar’s draft academic calendar and amending it if necessary.

Yet the EAC’s proposal was not the only new version of the calendar on the table. Two professors, Rachel Gabara and Patricia Richards, started a petition, gathering 111 signatures total, to propose a calendar that included different versions of both fall 2017 and spring 2018 semesters.

While both proposals’ main concern is starting too early in August, only the petition group’s calendar attempted to shorten the length of the semesters overall.  

The Board of Regents requires semesters be no shorter than 15 weeks, including exams but excluding registration, a clarification Registrar Jan Hathcote said was made only in the past couple of years. According to data compiled by Gabara and Richards, and submitted alongside their petition, UGA has the longest fall semester of any of its “peer and aspirational institutions” at 16 weeks and one day. Georgia State University and Georgia Tech have fall semesters of 15 weeks and 15 weeks and one day, respectively.

The BoR also requires 750 minutes of instructional time per credit hour each semester, a number UGA will exceed this fall with a total of 820 minutes. The petition proposed a new fall semester with 760 minutes.

Jean Williams-Woodward, chair of the EAC, expressed concern over the early start date, saying “faculty, including myself, have witnessed higher-than-average student absences” on those first days of school, and they have “concerns over interfering with student internships, training” and other experiential learning opportunities that may not have ended by the time UGA classes start. Yet the EAC proposal that ultimately passed only shortens the semester by one day.

“The start date is early. It is a problem,” said Vice President for Instruction Rahul Shrivastav. “But we do not have a problem with the length of the calendar. We should look into what is causing these discrepancies.”

UGA is constrained by different university activities and holidays than both Georgia State and Georgia Tech, Shrivastav said. For example, UGA has a weeklong Thanksgiving break, instead of two or three days, and a one-day fall break before the annual Georgia-Florida football game on the last Saturday of October to give students time to drive to Jacksonville.

Several council members moved to table the votes during the meeting, calling the proposals Band-Aids that haven’t been fully vetted. The motions failed, with both Executive Committee Chairwoman Janet Frick and Shrivastav openly stating their support of the EAC proposal instead of the petition.

“We are putting too much emphasis on Georgia State and Georgia Tech. We need to be careful with that, and we know we’re better than both of them,” Shrivastav said.

Others had concerns that shortening the semester would result in change of instructors’ pay, but “we are not paid per minute of teaching,” due to being paid a salary, Gabara said. “We are paid for doing our job well.”

Gabara, who came to UGA after teaching at Princeton University, had to adjust from a semester that was 12 weeks plus exams to gaining over three weeks of instructional time. In the Sept. 7 Executive Committee meeting, another council member said she was teaching a course this fall that she hadn’t taught in 10 years, and had to adjust the syllabus to having an extra instructional week.

While courses can be molded to fit varying time frames, others think longer semesters are asking too much. Graduate teaching assistants are suffering from exploitation, said one council member. Another simply said students are fatigued by the end of a long semester.

Yet some remain firm that time is of the essence. Law professor and previous Executive Committee Chairman David Shipley said he disagrees with the petition and thinks “we are shortchanging our students.” Beyond that, it “sends a bad message to the Board of Regents and the governor that we want to work a little less.”

Once the EAC’s proposal passed, the petition’s fall 2017 plan was eliminated. Yet there was still spring 2018 to consider. Originally, the petition group proposed a Thursday, Jan. 11 start date, but amended its proposal to start Monday, Jan. 8, in order to allow Monday classes to meet once before the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday.

Law School Dean Peter Rutledge urged the council to “let these issues ventilate in a standing committee” that has experience working with the calendar and the president and is more representative of UGA itself. “We should not be making decisions on the fly.”

Council members then voted to refer the petition’s spring 2018 proposals to the EAC’s subcommittee “as they do their comprehensive review” of possible changes to the spring semester. The subcommittee will examine potential alterations to the spring 2018 and summer 2018 calendars, and come forward with a proposal “without hurting student experiential learning opportunities or internships,” Williams-Woodward said.

All hope is not lost for the petition signees. “We are pleased to have brought a possible solution to this important issue to the attention of University Council,” Gabara said. “And we hope the Educational Affairs Committee will consider the data we collected as they pursue their deliberations regarding the calendar.”

UGA President Jere Morehead has not committed to approving the fall 2017 changes, but he hinted during a cabinet meeting before the University Council vote that he would go along with its recommendations, saying the debate is “the proper way you engage in faculty governance,” and he was confident it “would lead to a good outcome.”