In its report released Monday (March 22), the Harvard University Committee on Calendar Reform, appointed last fall by the president, provost, and deans,

illustration of calendar with airplane and student carrying a sofa
(Staff graphic Georgia Bellas/Harvard News Office)

recommends that the University move to a limited framework of shared dates among all Schools to promote closer connections among faculty and students from across the University. The committee adopted its report by a vote of 18 to 1. Chaired by Sidney Verba, Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and director of the University Library, the committee included faculty members drawn from each of the University’s Schools, including five from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), two undergraduates appointed by the Undergraduate Council, and three graduate students appointed by the FAS and University-wide Graduate Student Councils. The report recommends that the University adopt the following University-wide shared dates:

An instructional start date in early September immediately following Labor Day in most or all years.

Completion of fall semester exams (including reading period for those Schools that have it) before winter break.

Read the Statement of the President, Provost, and Deans

Conclusion of the academic year and Commencement by the end of May.

Coordination of vacations such as spring break and Thanksgiving break.

The committee also recommends that the University delay making any final decisions concerning a framework of shared dates until Schools undergoing curricular reviews – FAS, Harvard Medical School (HMS), Harvard Divinity School (HDS), and Harvard Graduate School of Education (GSE) – complete those reviews.

The president, provost, and deans issued a statement endorsing both the substantive and procedural recommendations of the committee: “to move to the proposed framework of a limited number of shared dates for all Schools but to defer final decisions concerning adoption and implementation of any such framework until after the anticipated completion of the Curriculum Review by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at the end of the 2004-2005 academic year.”

“The main purpose of our work on the Calendar Committee was to foster greater connection across the various faculties,” says Verba. “This is really in response to the changing nature of learning and research, which requires much more interdisciplinary, cross-professional activity.”

Verba noted that cross-registration and joint teaching across the faculties of Harvard’s Schools is pedagogically valuable and increasing. Harvard Business School (HBS) students work with the Department of Economics in FAS, for instance; HMS students do research with faculty in FAS; and Verba’s own government seminars host students from the GSE, Kennedy School of Government (KSG), or Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH). Yet the asynchronous nature of the Schools’ schedules makes this interdisciplinary work clumsy at best – with semester start dates and breaks varying by as much as several weeks – and prohibitive at worst.

Crossing Harvard’s borders

The committee report, with one member’s dissension, “strongly endorses the view that achieving greater coordination of calendars across the University is important for promoting closer connections among faculty and students from different Schools in an era when excellence in education and scholarship depends increasingly on learning that extends across traditional organizational boundaries.”

In addition to meeting three times over the fall semester, the committee surveyed the landscape at Harvard and beyond, collecting data on School calendars, constraints, historical information, faculty and student concerns, and practices at peer institutions. Cross-registration and joint programs among faculties at Harvard and with peer institutions, such as the Massachusetts

A brief history of (Harvard) time

The calendar by which Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) currently operates, with fall semester exams coming after winter break, has been in existence since 1838. In fact, Harvard University has made only two substantive changes to its academic calendar throughout its history. In the past 50 years, however, there have been five failed proposals to move exams before winter break.

From 1638 to 1838, Harvard’s calendar mimicked that of Cambridge University, with trimesters. The first recorded reconsideration of the 1838 calendar occurred in 1926-27, with the outcome delaying the start of spring break by one week.

The University adopted a 12-month calendar during World War II, reflecting the need for year-round instruction. In 1946, the 1838 calendar model returned. Throughout the post-World War II period, the calendar saw minor adjustments in the interest of energy conservation, recognition of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and religious holidays, and the avoidance of unintended consequences of previous changes. A 1950 proposal to return to a trimester system was vigorously opposed, and in 1964, Thanksgiving was made a four-day holiday.

Since the 1970s, several efforts to revamp the calendar and move fall semester exams before winter break have been mounted and defeated. President Derek Bok as well as underclassmen supported a 1973 proposal, which was tabled; it died in committee when it resurfaced in 1976. The Undergraduate Council’s 1987 proposal was defeated unanimously by the Faculty Council; and a 1994 proposal was shot down yet again.

By Beth Potier

Institute of Technology, were primary motivations for the committee’s recommendations. In an average semester, there are more than 2,600 cross-registrations involving non-cross-listed courses in Schools or faculties other than that of a student’s primary registration. There are also large numbers of courses offered jointly and cross-listed between two or more schools. There are about 100 such courses per term in the FAS alone. Harvard currently offers 22 joint-degree programs and will add several more in the near future.

Broad support

Support for the changes recommended by the committee is strong among the University’s Schools, the report details. All of Harvard’s professional schools either have a calendar that closes the fall semester, including final exams, before winter break, or would like to move to such a calendar.

“Coordination of a University calendar holds out enormous promise for many students who would like to benefit from the expertise of other faculties, but, because of scheduling conflicts, cannot,” says GSE Dean Ellen Condliffe Lagemann. “For example, a common calendar will allow our policy students or students studying educational administration to benefit from closer ties to the Kennedy and Business Schools, respectively.”

“The coordinated calendar framework will enhance the Harvard experience across the Schools in important ways,” says HBS Dean Kim B. Clark. “By lowering barriers to cross-registration, for example, students will be able to draw upon the remarkable depth and breadth of knowledge throughout the University. This is a significant step toward President Summers’ goal of creating a stronger sense of community.”

In addition, the five students on the committee, who consulted with students at their Schools and with the Undergraduate Council of Harvard College and the Harvard Graduate Council, unanimously support the proposed changes. While the students cited cross-registration as the primary benefit, they also noted that most students believe finishing exams before winter break is optimal for learning. Further, an earlier Commencement would increase students’ ability to compete for summer experiences, jobs, and internships.

Flexible January, flexible timing

While its recommendations are clear and nearly unanimous, the committee remains flexible on several points. First, although the committee’s report recommends that a three- to four-week period in January be designated for special study, research, time abroad, or other structured intersession activities, it leaves to individual Schools the determination of their own best uses and lengths of the January period, including the possibility of a longer Winter Break.

The committee also recommends that no changes be made to the University-wide calendar until pending curricular reviews at several Schools, notably FAS, are completed. “We were neither empowered, nor did we have the competence to judge the pedagogical plans and curriculum plans of the individual faculties,” says Verba. “Since some of the faculties hadn’t finished the job of figuring out their curricula, FAS being the big one, we recommended to the president and deans that no action be taken on our recommendations until these other decisions have been made.”

On Wednesday (March 24), Verba met with the FAS Faculty Council (the advisory committee for the dean of the faculty) on behalf of the committee. The Calendar Reform Committee’s report will be presented at the April FAS faculty meeting.