Academic Calendar Overhauled

New schedule allocates 3 weeks for J-term; unclear how College will use time

Harvard unveiled a new academic calendar yesterday that synchronizes the schedules of the University’s 13 schools, adds a three-week term in January, and moves final exams for undergraduates before winter break.

The new calendar, which will take effect in the 2009-2010 academic year, brings the University in line with many of its peers. It comes as part of an effort to increase collaboration among Harvard’s historically autonomous schools.

“The coordination of calendars will help the University become more and more of a university in which there is a lot more students from one faculty taking courses from another,” said Sidney Verba ’53, who served as chair of a calendar reform committee created in 2003.

Under the new schedule, classes for undergraduates will begin two weeks earlier and end a week earlier, and reading period will be shortened by about three days, lasting for eight days.

Each school will determine how to spend the three-week January term, which may be used for study abroad, research opportunities, internships, short courses, or vacation, according to a University statement.

The January-term plans of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, of which the College is a part, remain unclear.

Provost Steven E. Hyman, who oversees efforts to better integrate Harvard’s schools, said that it is up to FAS to design the term.

“Should the FAS choose not to do so, it’s not an excessively long period for students to be away from Harvard,” Hyman said.

Critics of revising Harvard’s calendar have assailed the idea of a January term, fearing that it would be too short for productive activity and that it might reduce the length of reading period.

But the idea of moving exams before the break found substantial support among students, who argued that the current calendar harmed their mental health and created scheduling difficulties.

“There seems to be an overwhelming sentiment to have exams before the winter break so that students could have a real break without having exams hanging over them,” Hyman said.

Hyman added that by ending the school year in late May, students will not be excluded from some summer employment opportunities.

The new calendar came after more than four years of heated debate, beginning with the formation of the 19-member University Committee on Calendar Reform in 2003.

Last spring, the movement gained steam after the Undergraduate Council sent a letter to then-President Derek C. Bok and to the University’s executive governing board, the Harvard Corporation, to urge action on the calendar.

After soliciting opinions from across the University, Bok announced in June that changes to the calendar had been approved.

Verba said the major hurdle of designing the new calendar was balancing the interests of all of Harvard’s schools.

“The main issue was trying to get consensus,” Verba said. “But the other big issue was that the calendar has not been changed in a long time.”

Dan W. Brock, a medical ethics professor at Harvard Medical School, said the changes would bridge gaps in communication between schools.

“Harvard has this long tradition of different schools having nothing to say to other schools,” he said. “This is a step in the right direction.”

Some students, including Alexandra A. Belcher ’08, said they preferred the old calendar.

“I think that with the intensity of the Harvard schedule, we need that break before exams,” said Belcher, a government concentrator.

Dadjie Saintus ’08, a psychology concentrator, praised the advent of a January term.

“Having a January term will be a lot more fun and you can get a lot more done than you can in a week,” she said. “You have to take exams before winter break, which is painful, but students at other schools survive.”

—Staff writer Arianna Markel can be reached at amarkel@fas.harvard.edu.