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July 9, 2009

Puzzling out Pitt's academic calendar

As sure as the summer months bring warmer weather, they also bring the University’s newest academic calendar, the 8.5 x 11-inch tri-fold brochure delivered to all employee campus addresses that lays out important dates over the next four academic terms.

This year’s version, already posted online (,
will cover July 2009-December 2011, plus the start dates of spring term in January 2012.

On the face of it, producing the academic calendar might appear to be a relatively easy task of updating dates from year to year.

Not so, said Patricia Beeson, vice provost for graduate studies and undergraduate studies, who chairs the provost’s academic calendar committee, a group of 10 faculty, staff and administrators. That committee is charged with ensuring that the University meets its mandated legal requirements, as well as those educational goals and common practices that Pitt sets for itself, said Beeson, who has chaired the committee for five years.

“The calendar is somewhat controversial in the sense that a lot of people think they have better ways to do it. When I first started this, I remember sitting in my office thinking I had a better way of doing it until I began realizing the ramifications,” she said. “It’s a difficult puzzle to put together. So, people will often come with a suggestion that they think will improve the calendar, then upon review something pops out from here and that affects something over there.”

For example, recently the committee considered the suggestion that Pitt standardize the length of its winter break for students.

“That varies from year to year, but that’s due to the fact that Labor Day varies from year to year,” Beeson pointed out. “Our common practice is to always start the fall term on the Monday before Labor Day. So to get in the number of days that are required by state law to have, and that we believe we need to have for our students to get an appropriate education, we need to have the term go so long.”

Pitt mandates a minimum of 14 class meeting days for every weekday in a term. The most recent winter recess for students began Dec. 14, because the Sept. 1 Labor Day meant classes started Aug. 25, the earliest date possible. But the pendulum will swing as far as it can this fall with Labor Day falling on Sept. 7, classes starting Aug. 31 and the winter recess delayed accordingly until Dec. 20.

“Constraints also exist at the other end of winter break,” Beeson explained. “The winter term has to start at a time when we can finish and have graduation by the end of April, or, occasionally, very early May, depending on where Sundays fall. To do that means we have to start at a certain date and we can’t keep pushing into the summer because we have a third term and a number of our schools use that third term. So it seems like an obvious thing to do — to standardize the winter break — but it’s not once Barbara [Repasi Heron] and I sit down with members of the committee and look at the ramifications of moving dates.”

Heron is a long-time Registrar’s office staff member who has been the office’s liaison to the calendar committee for some 17 years. While the committee meets a couple times a year in the spring term to discuss potential changes to the calendar, Heron, as the driving force behind coordinating affected parties across the University, starts her work each year in October, Beeson said.

“This is not just an afternoon in Barbara’s life. To put together the calendar given the number of constraints we have — the number of days that we have to have classes meet, the timing of holidays, the standard accepted practices of the University — takes a lot of time just to put together one version,” Beeson said. “We spend a lot of time going through drafts of what would happen, because it’s not just what will happen next year, it’s also what’s going to happen if we change our current practices with 14 different possible years [configurations], for all those variants of different calendars.”

Heron begins work in the fall on each year’s calendar; she said her starting point is Pitt’s extended calendar, tentative dates that become fixed as the next calendar is approved.

“We do make all those different versions in draft form: This is what will happen in future years if you do change this,” Heron said. Then the committee discusses the variations, she said.

Beeson added, “If there are no modifications, and we decide to go with the same basic rules that we’ve followed, then Barbara, before it goes back to the committee for final endorsement, will circulate the draft to any number of offices.”

In preparation for approving, posting and printing the 2009-2010 calendar, Heron in January sent out the settled-on draft to more than 100 University community representatives for comment, along with the proposed extended calendar draft for 2010-11 and 2011-12.

“The calendar draft, along with the draft of the extended calendar, goes to the chancellor and all the vice provosts and the deans, regional campus presidents, the Senate office, the Staff Association Council, Human Resources, all the vice chancellors and all the senior administrative officers,” Heron said.

“I also have a few other ‘concerned persons’ on the list,” such as Housing and Residence Life and food services personnel, she said.

“This year I asked for comments on the drafts by Feb. 6,” Heron said, adding that only a couple of stragglers needed a nudge after the deadline.

Heron sorts through the batch of responses, and brings suggested changes to the academic calendar committee. “I don’t really get a lot of suggestions. If a day is wrong or a date is wrong, of course I’ll hear about that,” she said, noting that the number of extra people reviewing the draft helps ensure accuracy.

“In the time I’ve been doing this,” Beeson said, “I have not seen any unreasonable requests. We get maybe four or five requests a year. People genuinely are trying to make suggestions that improve the work we do here, that would make things more sensible. We prefer to have them come from a representative body, such as the Student Government Board or a Senate committee or Faculty Assembly, rather than from an individual. That gives some weight to the requests. We do get repeated requests but we consider them every time. However, it’s those ramifications to changes that need to be considered carefully.”

Last year, the final approval of the calendar was delayed, Heron said, because a proposed October Monday fall break for students, which had been suggested by the Student Government Board, was still under consideration.

Beeson said, “We looked at other comparable institutions, what they’re doing, where are their breaks, what’s the length of their term. We decided to try it once to see how it went, and to mark it tentative in the following year’s calendar.”

The primary consideration in adding the one-day fall break in October was maintaining at least 14 class meeting days for each weekday in the fall term. The Labor Day holiday eliminates a Monday from the class schedule and Thanksgiving break cuts out a Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, leaving those four days of the week with 14 class meeting dates during the term. Since Tuesday had 15 class meeting dates, classes on Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2008 — the day after the Oct. 13 fall break — operated on a Monday schedule when classes resumed.

While last October’s fall break was viewed as an experiment, it has lost its tentative status this year, Beeson said. “We’re doing the fall break again this year. After the first one, I sent an email out to the deans and relevant groups asking if there were any problems. I asked for their feedback and there were some positives and negatives that the committee discussed,” she said.

Negative comments included that the shift in class scheduling affected some students’ work schedules, she said. But in balance the support outweighed the disenchantment, “and we decided to recommend having the fall break and the chancellor and the provost approved it,” Beeson said.

She noted that a proposal to add a one-time holiday for employees in lieu of an increase in the salary pool for this year, now being floated by a Staff Association Council committee, would not immediately come under the purview of the calendar committee.

“That recommendation would go to Human Resources because that’s an employee contract issue more than a calendar issue. We set the dates, but we don’t say how many holidays people have. That’s determined through their contract,” Beeson said.

Other guidelines that the calendar committee follows include a dictum against adjusting the calendar for religious reasons.

“We have a policy that we do not consider religious holidays when making the calendar because there are too many and they move,” Beeson said.

“We have had the unfortunate coincidence of having graduation being on the final day of Passover, if the calendar is such that graduation is late and Passover is early. When that happened, the students were very concerned. So there was a separate reception for the Jewish students who wanted to have something of a graduation reception with their families. We could not move graduation, but instead we did that. The same will happen occasionally with Greek Orthodox Easter. The biggest potential conflict of a religious holy day is with graduation.”

She noted that a letter goes out every fall from the provost about accommodating students who have religious obligations at the time of an exam. The Registrar’s office, which controls exam scheduling, is prepared to handle such student requests, Beeson added.

Heron said a recurring issue that merits attention in the calendar over the long term is handling those holidays that shift.

“In 2010 the summer term will have two holidays, Independence Day and of course Memorial Day, that will be celebrated on a Monday,” she explained. “That drops the count of Mondays in the term to under anything that’s acceptable. So we decided we had to end the term on the Monday after the Friday when the summer term usually ends to make up that count.”

Beeson said, “There are quirks like that and people wonder why we’re ending a term on a Monday. It is interesting the things you don’t think of. Like Housing: It’s easy to say, let’s just start the summer term one day earlier. Well, Housing has to clean out all those dorm rooms and that one day is important. There are a lot of little things like that that aren’t obvious.”

Heron recalled the most publicized change in the calendar during her long tenure as Registrar’s liaison.

“We’ve always followed the national holiday schedule, except in the case of what used to be called Presidents Day and now is called Great Americans Day,” Heron said.

That changed in the 1990s, when Pitt moved its Monday February holiday to a Friday, because Martin Luther King’s birthday celebration holiday took up a Monday in the spring term.

“It was illogical because we were off on a Friday and the rest of the country was off on a Monday,” Heron said. “[In 1998] a committee member suggested that we move that holiday to spring break because it then would not affect class count, and it’s been there ever since,” Heron said.

In 2002, Pitt officially changed the name of its Great Americans Day holiday to spring holiday.

Beeson said, “Each year, as soon as the calendar is approved by the chancellor and the provost, we put it online.” The 2009-10 calendar has been posted for more than six weeks, she said.

The printed version usually lags behind. In addition to listing important academic dates, the printed calendar also differentiates between those dates that apply to undergraduate and graduate students at all five campuses, which are printed in bold capital letters, and those dates applicable to the Pittsburgh campus only, which are printed in regular type.

The printed version also includes an 18-month schedule of meetings for Senate Council, Faculty Assembly and the Staff Association Council; inclusion of meeting dates are restricted to University-wide bodies, Beeson said.

“But those dates are particular to the organizations and independent of the academic calendar,” she noted.

While the calendar is available electronically, there are no current plans to discontinue the paper version. “We think people like having the hard copy, and we’re less pressed now to get it out by the end of the spring term because it’s available online,” she said.

—Peter Hart

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