Penn may be on the verge of adopting an academic calendar proposal that would require the 2013-14 school year to begin earlier than it has in decades.
Provost Vince Price is currently in the process of making a final decision on the proposal, which was passed unanimously by the Council of Undergraduate Deans on Oct. 19.
Today, Price is planning on meeting with student leaders from the Undergraduate Assembly and the Student Committee on Undergraduate Education to talk through the calendar.
“We’ve had a lot of conversations about this proposal with faculty … and I’m looking forward to having that same kind of conversation with students,” he said. “I think it will be very helpful.”
Though Price declined to say whether he supports the current draft of the calendar — which calls for fall 2013 classes to begin on Aug. 28, Penn’s earliest start date since 1974 — he plans to make a final decision “within a matter of weeks, at the longest.”
He added that he has been “very pleased” with the amount of “due diligence and time” CUD spent consulting with students and faculty across campus.
CUD “has looked at this matter very carefully,” Price said. “They have taken into consideration a wide range of alternative proposals … and I’m very confident that they’ve done a good job of reviewing all of the issues at stake.”
The proposed calendar change comes in response to a new Pennsylvania Department of Education requirement addressing instructional time and credit-assigning policies.
Under the department’s March 2008 “Curricular Credit Policy,” all courses at colleges and universities in the state must offer a minimum of 42 instructional hours per semester.
Because Penn’s fall semester has historically been about a week shorter than in the spring, many fall courses meet for just 36 hours, Executive Director for Education and Academic Planning in the Provost’s Office Rob Nelson said.
The University is up for a reaccreditation review in the 2013-14 academic year by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education — one of eight regional accrediting organizations for higher education institutions recognized by the United States Department of Education — and must adapt to the new guidelines in order to comply with state standards.
“We needed to add six more instructional days onto the fall semester, and this seemed like the best solution possible to us,” said Nelson, who drafted the initial calendar proposal.
Some, however, have questioned the legitimacy of the impetus behind the proposed changes.
“Frankly, I’m somewhat surprised that Penn’s accreditation status would ever be brought into question,” College freshman Noah Rubin said. “It just seems a bit absurd that [the University’s] academic reputability would ever be an issue.”
While MSCHE spokesman Richard Pokrass acknowledged that a slew of recent federal and state education legislation — such as the federal Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 — has been intended primarily to regulate standards at newer, for-profit institutions, he said the commission does not make any exceptions when looking into governmental compliance during its school-by-school reviews.
“The thing we stress to the 530 institutions we accredit is that, whether you’re a 30-student seminary or a major research university like Penn, you need to comply with the 14 standards we set forth in this process,” Pokrass said.
He added that the issue of instructional time and adherence to education regulations would fall under Middle States’ 11th standard in the review, entitled “educational offerings.”
Nelson explained that Penn, even as a private university, must undergo a full reaccreditation review every 10 years in order to ensure that both students and faculty are eligible for federal funding — students for financial aid resources like Pell Grants, and faculty for monetary research support.
“At its core, there seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding about the difference between a public and private school … Penn is very public in the sense that an enormous amount of federal funding flows our way,” Nelson said. “If we were ever to become unaccredited, we’d lose access to that funding.”
Some have pointed to several advantages that the new calendar may bring.
For example, Price noted that “one of the happy outcomes of shifting the calendar before Labor Day” is that the length of the fall and spring semesters will be more or less equalized.
Additionally, College and Wharton sophomore Abe Sutton, the UA’s academic affairs director, said increasing class time “could be a really good development for students” if professors use the extra sessions to delve more in-depth into certain topics, rather than simply assign more work.
College of Arts and Sciences Dean Dennis DeTurck agreed.
“Do we necessarily need the increased instructional time?” he asked. “In many ways, probably not.”
“Will we utilize it well? Absolutely.”
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