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Letter regarding University calendar reform

Cambridge, Mass.

Dear Members of the Harvard Community,

I am writing to solicit your views on the issue of University calendar reform and to apprise you of recent developments regarding this subject.

As many of you know, in 2003-04, the issue of calendar reform was considered by a University-wide committee chaired by Professor Sidney Verba that included representatives from each of the Harvard Faculties. In charging the committee, the president, provost, and deans affirmed their desire to move toward a set of calendar guidelines that would place Harvard’s Schools on a more uniform academic schedule and enable students and faculty members to cross Harvard’s internal borders with greater ease. After carefully analyzing and weighing the potential benefits and complexities of calendar reform, the committee produced a detailed report proposing a framework consistent with this goal.

Under the committee’s recommended framework, endorsed by 18 of its 19 members, each of the University’s Faculties would start the first term early in September, usually immediately after Labor Day, and end the term (including exams) in December, before the winter break. The academic year (including Commencement) would conclude by the end of May. Vacations such as Thanksgiving and spring break would be coordinated. Within these basic guidelines, the timing and structure of activities such as course registration and reading and exam periods would continue to be determined by the individual Schools. In addition, Schools would have discretion to decide whether and how to use the January time period to reflect their own academic needs. The text of the committee’s report, more fully articulating its proposal and the rationale underlying it, appears at

In March 2004, the president, provost, and deans issued a statement expressing their belief that the University should follow the substantive and procedural recommendations of the Verba committee. They stated that the University should move to the proposed framework of a limited number of uniform dates on the calendars of all the Schools, but agreed to defer final action until the completion of certain curricular reviews then underway in several of the Faculties. .

Within the past month, now that the review of undergraduate education is nearing an end (and with the other curricular reviews pending in 2004 having been concluded), the question of calendar reform has emerged once again. The deans have discussed the issue and concluded unanimously, as they did three years ago, that the Verba committee’s proposal to achieve greater uniformity of academic calendars across Harvard would advance the interests of the University as a whole. The Harvard Overseers have expressed a similar view. More recently still, the Undergraduate Council has issued a report on the subject and conducted a poll of undergraduates indicating heavy support for a calendar change. The Council has also addressed a letter to me and to the other members of the Harvard Corporation asking us to consider the matter. (It should be understood that a new calendar could probably not go into effect for two years in order to allow time to prepare properly for such a change.)

The reasons given to me in support of a common calendar framework include the following. Such a framework would make it easier for students to take courses in Harvard Schools other than their own, as well as at MIT. It would also facilitate more teaching across Faculty lines, an objective recently endorsed by the University Planning Committee on Science and Engineering and the FAS Task Force on General Education. Students would finish fall term exams before winter vacation, allowing for a longer and less stressful break – an advantage recently emphasized by the Undergraduate Council and reinforced in a letter to me by the Director of the University Health Services. In addition, students would finish the academic year earlier in the spring, helping them compete more effectively for summer jobs and other opportunities. The current number of instructional days could be preserved, as could the opportunity for significant reading periods each term in those Schools that have them. The period in January between the fall and spring terms would give Schools discretion to pursue nontraditional educational offerings for students and could also enhance opportunities for faculty research. In addition, by aligning its calendar more closely with that of other universities, Harvard would facilitate matters such as scheduling athletic contests and participating in study abroad programs. For a fuller introduction to the issues and proposals involved, I call your attention to the documents mentioned earlier in this message.

Now that several sources have expressed themselves on the subject of calendar reform, it seems only appropriate and fair to offer all interested parties an opportunity to be heard so that we may have a full range of arguments and views. Accordingly, I am soliciting the opinions of all members of the Harvard community, since all will be affected in one way or another by a resolution of the issues. Please send me your thoughts on the subject by the end of this month, either by e-mail to or by writing to me, care of Massachusetts Hall (“Attention: Calendar reform”). Feel free to express yourself at any length you choose; even if you merely record yourself for or against the calendar change described earlier, your opinion will be welcome. If you do respond, remember to indicate your name and position within the University. I look forward to hearing from you.

Many thanks and best wishes,
Derek Bok