By Terry Newfarmer

In a stroke of visionary leadership (or hasty abuse of power, depending on one’s point of view) the Board of Regents preempted the feasibility study in progress at the U of U and ordered the entire Utah System of Higher Education to adopt the semester system. In response, a campus wide planning and communication effort is already well under way. Except for Utah Valley State College, which has already made the conversion, the nine schools in the state system will convert from the quarter system beginning autumn semester, 1998.

At the U of U, campuswide planning and communication are already well under way.

When Less is More

Students almost always ask: "Why change? What’s wrong with the quarter system?’ The answer, according to advocates of the conversion, is improved education based upon claims of simplicity and depth vs. breath.

The Regents and others who favor the semester system are convinced that longer terms are academically superior. With 15 weeks instead of 10, students and faculty have the time needed to pursue a subject in depth. Classes do not have to meet daily, and instructors can build the background needed to fully explore a subject. Students take fewer courses to graduate, but the time is available within each course for an instruction to build the background leading into a subject, or to explore the elegance beneath the fundamentals.

The second primary reason cited by the Regents for the change is that conversion will place Utah institutions in step with the rest of the nation, since about 80 percent of universities use the semester system.

There are other less important, but relevant, reasons for converting. (1) Students and administrators will only have to go through the rigors of registration twice instead of three times during the regular academic year. (2) Textbooks tend to be standardized for semester courses, and there may even be some savings if students have to buy fewer books. (3) Transfers from private or out-of-state institutions will be easier, because most use the semester system. (4) Spring semester will end early enough to help students get summer jobs or launch their careers, without having to compete with others who had a five-week head start.

From the point of view of members of the Board of Regents, the conversion also provides an opportunity to revamp the curriculum at all the schools, and enhance coordination among the Utah institutions.

Students on Semesters

For their part, students are as yet largely unaware of the implications of the change. When pressed, some express concern over the transition, while others welcome the new system. Rachael Rosenfeld, a junior in biology, voices a common concern: "If you end up in a bad class or with a difficult professor, you’re stuck--With quarters you can stand a couple of months, but in the semester system that’s it; half your year." Others suggest that taking off one term to work will be more difficult with semesters.

Jeff Chapman, a senior in English, offers the other view: "I wish we had made this move before now, he says. Semesters afford students more time and interest in a given subject. I know in my own classes, I always felt that we were rushing to get through material. Some of our best discussions were never finished because we had to move on to the next book." Chaitna Sinha is a freshman and will therefore have considerable experience with both systems before she graduates. "I’m looking forward to the depth that semesters offer," she says. I’m also worried about the lack of diversity that results from taking fewer classes."

Robert Parry, Distinguished Professor emeritus of chemistry, has been a teacher for 50 years, essentially half of it on the quarter system at the U, and half on semesters at the University of Michigan. "Both systems work," Parry says. "A good faculty can teach either way, and it is the faculty who determine the quality of instruction, not the calendar."

"My purely personal preference is for semesters because an instructor can fill the extra time with useful information that relates to the rest of the program...The greater depth attainable is a worthwhile arrangement" Parry says. "Also, there is less busy work. You spend less time stopping and starting, checking out equipment and checking it in, and more time teaching and less in the painful process of grading."

Parry is skeptical about scenarios of more-crowded classroom stemming from fewer course sections. "We will have the same number of students; it’s just a matter of how you schedule them and your facilities," he says.

Andrew Spencer, a senior in political science and pre-med, transferred from a semester-system college. "I know you cannot learn as much or as well in nine or 10 weeks," he says. "Semesters also force a student to be more focused in choosing a major."

In the area of athletics, most of the effects of the change are positive. "We’ll have students on campus much earlier in the football, volleyball, and soccer seasons," says Chris Hill PhD’82, athletics director. "This means the players will start competition and their academics at the same time; this sends them the right message about what’s important. Winter sports will benefit too, because no longer will final examinations coincide with the busiest time in the season--the WAC and NCAA basketball tournaments--as they do under the quarter system." Hill says the one disadvantage is that athletes in spring sports--softball, baseball, track--may find themselves competing and taking final examinations in the same time frame.

Likewise, the earlier start in the fall will cause traditional events, including Young Alumni Day, Plazafest, and Homecoming, to take place earlier in the season. Other annual events, such as the various awareness weeks, lectureships, and the like will probably be affected as well.

Mission: Possible

Much is being done. The U of U Calendar Transition Council, chaired by David Grant, Distinguished Professor of Chemistry, is guiding the changeover. Throughout the University, academic departments are conducting a course-by-course overhaul, punctuated by steps in the process that require coordination of major requirements and electives. Led by the Academic Advising Office, student advisers are gearing up to keep the promise that students’ progress toward their degrees will not be disrupted by the change. Meanwhile, administrative offices and student-service agencies are updating the University’s administrative computing with new ways of handling course registrations, etc., and all of the University’s publications will be recast to reflect the new calendar.

The Academic Senate has approved the specific dates for the first few years after the conversion. These establish the norm for the future.

Autumn semester will start approximately Aug. 25 each year, allowing the semester to be completed by mid-December, before the holidays. Spring semester will begin about Jan. 10 and run to about May 10. Half-semester terms will allow for special courses. For holidays, autumn semester will have Labor Day, a two-day fall break (concurrent with the Utah public schools), and a two-day Thanksgiving recess. Spring semester’s breaks will include Martin Luther King/Human Rights Day, Presidents’ Day, and a week-long spring break. In addition, each semester there will be a reading day when classes will not meet, just before the final examination period.

There is no proposal to change the standard 50-minute class periods, so it appears that the long-familiar 7:45, 8:50, 9:55, and 11 a.m. class meeting times will survive the conversion.

Summer terms will be 12-weeks long, from about May 15 to Aug. 5. Departments and programs will have the opportunity to offer full-semester courses with lengthened class periods, or short courses, intensive classes, field experiences, and special programming.

Quarter credits will be converted to semester credits by applying the ratio that two semester hours equal three quarter hours. If one had accumulated 30 credit hours under the quarter system, then 20 semester hours will be credited in the conversion. A baccalaureate degree will require 122 semester hours, compared to the 183 hours required under the quarter system. For a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science degree, at least 40 credits must be upper-division hours.

The Line on Credit

Some of the changes in how credits will be applied represent revisions of current policy. One measure removes the limit on how many hours within a student’s major in excess of the amount required for the major may be counted as electives toward graduation. Another policy change limits students to 15 hours of credit/no-credit grades for graduation (not including courses that are taught only on a credit/no-credit basis), about half that currently allowed. The University will require that at least 30 hours, and 20 of the last 30, be taken on-campus, and departments may add their own residency requirements. The current limit on correspondence courses remains in place (30 semester hours), but the Academic Senate is studying which forms of distance education--television courses, courses by computer, etc.--should be included under this requirement.

Also in place is the structure for general education/liberal education requirements. The language requirement of fourth-semester proficiency for a B.A. degree is about the same as before, but now candidates for a B.S. must take two quantitatively intensive courses. The general quantitative/reasoning minimum also exceeds the statewide requirement.

The intellectual explorations area allows students to choose two courses from each of four subject areas--fine arts, sciences, humanities, and social sciences (not confined to the colleges that bear the similar names). Four committees will advise the Undergraduate Council on courses to accept as meeting the subject-area requirements. The General Education plan adds a new requirement that students include an upper-division course that is writing/communication intensive. As a whole, the plan encourages students to use upper-division courses to fill requirements. Also highly recommended is that departments or colleges require a culminating capstone experience, seminar, undergraduate research experience, exhibition or performance project, or senior thesis for the baccalaureate degree.

Done Deal

University committees studied the possibility of converting to the semester system at least twice in the past. There was always mixed sentiments, with the faculty concluding it wasn’t worth the cost and effort to convert. More recently, President Arthur Smith advocated the conversion, but said he would order the change only if he could convince the faculty to embrace the idea. An Academic Senate task force was gathering data about the issue when the Board of Regents ordered the change.

The Regents’ action was in spite of opposition by the Utah State University Faculty Senate, and it overruled a request from the U of U not to act until the costs and benefits of converting were sufficiently understood for an informed decision. Since this background work was never completed, no definitive cost for the conversion was ever identified, and there is widespread concern within the University that the Regents’ order will amount to an unfunded mandate.

Now that the issue is decided, the primary emphasis is on make the change as painless as possible to students. Top priorities with faculty and staff are to work out a logical curriculum, and to communicate with students in every possible way, so that they will be prepared for the imminent change.

Terry Newfarmer BS’66 BS’69 BS’78 is writer/editor of FYI...a faculty/staff newsletter in the Office of University Communications.