Faculty Approves New Academic Calendar, Honors System
By Elaine Teng '12, Editor-in-Chief
At their Dec. 7 meeting, the faculty approved new courses, and after much debate, passed proposed changes to the college calendar for the next seven years and a revision of the college honors system.

Because the University of Massachusetts, Amherst (UMass) recently adjusted its spring semester academic schedule for the next seven years due to budgetary constraints so that they will start the Monday after Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Day, the other schools of the Five College Consortium have all gradually followed suit, with the College being the last to do so with last night’s faculty approval. Beginning with spring 2012, the College will start the spring semester on the Monday after MLK Day the two years that UMass does the same, and on the five years when UMass begins on the Tuesday after the holiday, the College will start classes on Thursday, but hold Wednesday classes on Friday.

“The reason we’re asking you to think of that Friday as a Wednesday is because it would have no consequence on courses that meet Monday, Wednesday, Friday, but … the majority of seminars at the College meet on Wednesday,” said Professor of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought Lawrence Douglas, chair of the College Council. “This semester, there are seven on Monday, eight on Tuesday and 25 on Wednesday. We thought it was important to get as many of those seminars in during Add/Drop as possible. Then we would have the last Wednesday of the semester count as a Friday so that the sciences don’t miss out on a concluding lab.”

Many faculty members voiced their disapproval of this complicated schedule, which cuts down on Interterm in certain years, which they then felt would detract from both student and academic work.

“I know what my students use the January period for, and it’s a very productive period,” said one professor of geology. “For seniors, it’s when they do one quarter of their senior thesis work without the interruption of other classes. It’s also a time when some of our students go on excursions or field trips to see geology you can’t see locally. I’m fully aware of what the loss of a full week of January Interterm will mean. I count the value of those days very highly.”

However, others stressed the importance of Five College collaboration and warned that not conforming with the other schools would not only send a negative message but would also complicate and derail other scheduling and cooperation efforts, such as a uniform spring break. It would also make it difficult for Five College students to take classes at Amherst because they would have to wait until the end of their Add/Drop period to make a decision or to know if they were actually accepted in the class. Seniors from the Five Colleges might then also be unable to graduate on time because their Amherst grades were not in on time.

“The Five Colleges really draw people here that might otherwise have gone to Williams,” said Dean of New Students Patricia O’Hara. “We have to remember the benefit of cooperation to our institution is really, really high. It’s not just the numbers; it’s the spirit of that cooperation that’s really valuable to the selling of Amherst College.”

Ultimately, the benefits outweighed the costs, and the faculty voted 58-33 to approve the measure. The next order of business was a modification to the honors system. Currently, honors are determined by a combination of department recommendations based on theses and the students’ academic record. The Committee on Educational Policy (CEP) proposed that, effective with the Class of 2011E, summa cum laude recommendations from departments will be awarded so that the top 25 percent of summa candidates will receive the highest honors, while those in the top 40 percent but not the top 25 will receive magna, and the remaining will be awarded cum laude.

“When the CEP looked at the current system, one thing that really stood out to us as an anomaly that didn’t really have to be there [was] those that had summa recommendations who just missed the 25 percent level, and therefore were dropped two levels to cum laude,” said Chair of the CEP Lyle McGeoch, Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science. “That seemed to us quite a serious penalty for a difference in GPA that could really be quite small. We put together this proposal with the idea that providing a step along the way, we might more reasonably honor the work of students who’ve done truly excellent theses.”

Essentially, this change, which would only affect an extremely small percentage of students, would establish a new way to award magna cum laude, a shift that worried a few faculty members.

“What worries me about is the effect on faculty; we could argue it magna or summa,” voiced one professor. “Lowering the bar for summa recommendations, we will eventually be lowering the bar for magna recommendations. It will play out in our minds over time. To avoid the injustice of three students per year dropping from summa to cum laude, we’re having a possibly deleterious effect on our judgment on a summa versus a magna thesis.”

After some debate, the faculty overwhelmingly approved this measure, concluding their last meeting for the semester.

Issue 11, Submitted 2010-12-08 03:31:38