The Calendar Reform Waltz

The idea of pre-Christmas exams would probably sound pretty good to most undergraduates in Lamont doing pre-Christmas work in the middle of January. But supporters of the most recent attempt to change the academic calendar stress not only the psychological benefits but also the savings in energy a six-week mid-winter vacation would produce.

The College undertook the last major study of the question more than four years ago; the only results were slight revisions to accommodate students cross-registering at the Medical School.

The Student Assembly's new plan, which it submitted in April to President Bok asking him to set up a committee to study the idea, suggests moving registration to August 30, to cut one day each from classes, Reading Period and exams and to end the term on December 23. The second semester would begin February 2 and then continue on its usual schedule.

Mark Olsen '82, a member of the assembly committee that put together the report, says the College could save about $250,000 in heating costs during the shut-down. Olsen says awarding money to Houses that save the most energy each month is a meager effort compared to the savings a calendar change would allow. "I don't know why they waste their time just turning off lights," he adds.

The assembly extrapolated figures from a 1974 Buildings and Grounds (B&G) study that gauged energy use in one building for a week. But James E. Duncan, energy management coordinator for B&G, calls those calculations "fallacious."

Duncan's staff conducted a very limited study of energy usage during Christmas vacation this year, but he quickly points out that they monitored only a few buildings in the Yard, and that his data may not apply to the Houses or other College buildings.

"The results were not consistent--there were built-in flaws with the test," Duncan says. "We had to compare that data with energy use during a 'comparable' period of time, but it's hard to determine what's really comparable," he adds.

While Olsen says his calculations tend to agree with the results of Duncan's study, Duncan says, "I didn't think the figures he showed me had any more meaning than the study I had done. And I just told you the report I did was stupid." Duncan refuses to release any results of his tests, but he adds that, while the winter may be the most obvious place to save energy, it may not always be the best.

"Lots of experienced people think, and I tend to agree, that you can save more in the fall and spring than you can in the winter," he says, explaining that as temperatures fluctuate, some students want the heat on, while others open windows, wasting energy. Because they have no concrete evidence of conservation benefits, some administrators and faculty say the drawbacks to changing the calendar--in both educational and financial terms--outweigh many positive savings a revised schedule would afford.

Dean Fox says College administrators are always alert to ways to conserve energy, pointing to a B&G study this year that showed the University used the same amount of energy today that it did ten years ago, in spite of adding more than 20 new buildings to its plant.

"If there's a dollars and cents argument here we'll pay close attention to it," he says.

Because the College is only one part of the University, most campus buildings would have to remain open during the proposed six-week hiatus. Even closing only the Yard dormitories and the Houses would be difficult because about 100 tutors, proctors and masters would have to have a place to live during the winter recess.

Fox says there are still plenty of places to conserve by improving building management. "All of those energy issues seem at present to direct us into more intensive use of facilities, not toward closings," Fox says.

A long winter's rest would have negative financial consequences in other quarters. Without 6400 undergraduates eating an average of two meals a day, dining hall workers would find no one to serve during those six weeks. Daniel Steiner '54, general counsel to the University, says the College would try to reassign workers to other jobs for that period--as it does in the summer--but might have to lay off workers instead. Fox also mentions that the empty buildings might require extra security, possibly adding to police costs.

The shortened summer and extra interim time could affect not only professors' research opportunities but also student finances. Presumably students could work during the six-week winter hiatus to make up for lost summer income, but Lawrence E. Maguire, director of the University work-study program, says mid-winter jobs may take some planning to find.

Elizabeth M. Hicks, associate director of financial aid, says the financial aid office might have to reevaluate its term-time and summer earning standards.

A new schedule could affect the amount of time students can spend on extra-curricular activities, and some students groups might have trouble gearing up for second-semester activities after the long break.

"The jazz band wouldn't appreciate it very much because ensemble practice is very important," Eric K. Rubin '80, former treasurer of the Harvard-Radcliffe Band, says.

But basketball coach Frank McLaughlin says he would favor pre-Christmas exams, calling them especially beneficial for the freshmen who would enter the bulk of a long season with their first set of exams behind them. McLaughlin says athletes would undoubtedly have to return during that mid-winter break to play a portion of their schedule.

Hockey coach Bill Cleary's view of a winter without students is less optimistic. "I'd hate it if we had to play a whole month without the students here for moral support," Cleary says.

But those breaks in the season are part of the reason some people would dislike the proposed changes. Courses with heavy reading lists require time for assimilation and reflection. Under the current calendar, Thanksgiving and Christmas vacation provide respite in the fall, and spring break and a longer Reading Period add extra time in the spring.

"I'm not convinced that calendar reform would be that much of a good thing--it would make Reading Period and exams very tight," Skip Stern '81, a member of the Committee on Houses and Undergraduate Life, says.

The assembly's proposal cuts several days of instruction as well as failing to include freshman week at all. Margaret E. Law, University registrar, planned sample calendars for the next two years with exams before Christmas but no changes in the number of days of instruction or exams. According to her projections, registration would fall on about August 26 for the next two years, with Freshman Week beginning on August 19.

Law has said it is not possible to cut any exam days because of the number of courses offered, unless the College scheduled three exams in one day. To start classes after Labor Day, as the assembly has proposed, students would have to miss still more days of instruction or Reading Period.

"I'm not willing to come to work on August 15," William H. Bossert, McKay Professor of Applied Mathematics and master of Lowell House, says, adding that it takes at least two weeks before the start of classes to prepare for a course. Bossert also rejects the idea of shortening the number of days in each term. "It's very difficult in 33 or 35 lectures to be able to give what we're trying to give anyway," he says. Fox also says he is not willing to cut into instructional time unless he has an exceptionally compelling reason.

And so the issue of changing the calendar comes down to a familiar one for the Faculty, pitting educational against financial interests. Olsen says a quarter of a million dollars in energy savings ought to offset the hassles of the change. "I never said there weren't going to be problems. I just said they could be worked out," he says. But Fox says he must see savings of more on the order of a half million dollars before considering educational concessions. "It would have to be a significant amount in savings for us to make an educational decision that many would deplore," he says.

The committee the assembly has proposed would study the energy question and perhaps even commission outside firms to find concrete figures for the Faculty to consider in weighing the tradeoffs. But Fox, clearly tired of the subject after its intense discussion a few years ago, says, "We have had a committee that was formed to study it and they did study it and they found it unfeasible and it didn't go away."

As an academic institution, the College will probably continue to give priority to educational concerns, at least until advisers from within instead of students from without bring up the energy problem. "As oil hits higher and higher marks," Olsen argues, "they will have to look at it. The ironic thing is that they're going to have to do it eventually anyway." For now, however, administrators are not sold on the idea, and something more than the assembly's $250,000 predicted savings would be needed to convince them to incur the educational costs they see in the proposal.