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Approval of University calendar reform

Cambridge, MA

Dear Members of the Harvard Community,

Earlier today the University’s governing boards approved my recommendation to adopt the framework for a more unified academic calendar as proposed by the Verba Committee in 2004. As outlined in my May 2 message to the Harvard community, the basic elements of this framework are as follows:

  • Each of the University’s Faculties will ordinarily begin the first semester early in September, usually immediately after Labor Day.
  • The fall term (including exams) will end in December, before the winter break.
  • The University will work with the several Faculties to coordinate the starting dates of the second semester within an interval from mid- to late January, to the maximum extent feasible in light of the Schools’ programmatic needs.
  • Schools will have discretion to decide what, if any, programmatic use to make of the period from early January to the beginning of the spring term.
  • The academic year (including Commencement) will conclude by the end of May.
  • Vacations such as Thanksgiving and spring break will be coordinated.
  • Within these basic guidelines, the timing and structure of activities such as course registration and reading and exam periods will continue to be determined by the individual Schools.

The new calendar will not take effect before the academic year 2009-2010 in order to give adequate notice to students, faculty, and staff and provide sufficient time to prepare for the new schedule and make the numerous administrative adjustments needed to implement the change effectively. The period between now and September 2009 will also give Faculties that currently have their first semester exams in January ample time to consider how they might use the period from early January to the start of the spring term. The governing boards have directed that the Provost, in consultation with the Deans of the Faculties, the registrars, and appropriate others, initiate a University-wide process to ensure the coordinated implementation of the new calendar framework.

The decision to recommend approval of the new calendar came after receiving more than eleven hundred responses to my message of May 2, inviting reactions from all members of the Harvard community. Respondents expressed overwhelming support for the change. Overall, 94 percent of the respondents indicated approval of the new calendar. Eighty-eight percent of the faculty favored the change as did 94 percent of the students and 94 percent of the staff. In none of the individual Faculties did the majority in any of these three constituencies fall below 75 percent.

As many of the supporting messages pointed out, the advantages of the new calendar include making it easier for students to take courses in other Schools at Harvard, facilitating teaching by faculty members in Schools other than their own, allowing students to compete more effectively for summer jobs and overseas programs, and providing a less stressful winter vacation, among others.

The new calendar will bring Harvard much closer to the practice at the great majority of other universities, including research universities comparable to Harvard. The very fact that so many institutions have adopted similar calendars and maintained them over many years suggests that there are no practical problems of sufficient magnitude to militate against the change. On the contrary, inquiries we have made of officials in peer institutions reveal widespread satisfaction with calendars similar to the one we are adopting. According to our sources, faculty members in these universities have not experienced much difficulty in beginning the academic year around Labor Day, nor have these universities found it hard to organize orientation programs and other activities taking place in August prior to the opening of classes. Many institutions have made creative use of the period between the end of the first semester and the beginning of the second. Finally, we found no convincing evidence that the quality of academic work has suffered as a result of the decision to end the first semester before the winter holidays.

In reaching my decision to seek approval for the change, I read carefully all of the responses containing specific objections to the new calendar. Studying these comments provided a valuable check against the risk of unforeseen and unintended consequences and helped alert us to minor problems the University should address in preparing for the change. In the end, however, I concluded, as did the Verba Committee and all of the deans, that the prospective benefits of calendar reform clearly outweighed the concerns expressed by those opposing the change.

Let me close by thanking everyone who took the trouble to respond to my message of May 2. Your replies were important to me and to the governing boards in reaching our decision and helped to confirm our view that a more unified calendar would serve the best interests of the University and its members.


Derek Bok