University Leaders Approve Calendar Reform

Starting in 2009-2010, fall semester exams will occur before winter break, and Commencement will be moved to late May.

Interim University President Derek C. Bok announced today that Harvard’s governing boards had approved his recommendation to create a reformed, University-wide calendar.

The new calendar configuration will be modeled on a proposal—initially advanced by a 2003–2004 committee chaired by Pforzheimer University Professor Sidney Verba ’53—to begin classes shortly after Labor Day, to move fall exams before winter break, and to end the academic year in May.

Implementation of the changes is set for the 2009-2010 academic year, to give Harvard’s 11 schools time to attend to the details of coordination.

Though the original report of the Verba committee endorsed the creation of a January “J-term,” Bok left today’s proposal vague on this topic, writing that he would allow schools the “discretion to decide what, if any, programmatic use to make of the period from early January to the beginning of the spring term.”

Bok’s announcement comes after calendar reform was endorsed by University deans and Undergraduate Council (UC) leaders this spring.

Today’s announcement, according to UC President Ryan A. Petersen ’08 indicated the attentiveness of University leadership to student-driven advocacy.

“The undergraduates and the Undergraduate Council identified a problem and sought to address it, and the governing boards took our concerns seriously,” Petersen said.

To open a dialogue on calendar concerns, Bok himself circulated an e-mail to the University on May 2 soliciting opinions on the prospect of change. According to Bok’s statement today, the request for advice received 1100 responses, 94 percent of which approved of the new calendar.

Discussing the advantages of the new configuration, Bok said that it would allow easier cross-registration across schools and diminish the stress of winter break.

“The new calendar will bring Harvard much closer to the practice at the great majority of other universities,” he said in today’s statement. “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.”

Though President-elect Faust was not officially involved in the decision, she has said that she communicated with Bok on the issue throughout this spring.

“I would be delighted to have a new calendar approved as it would represent a critical step in uniting the University,” she wrote in an e-mail statement to The Crimson before the decision was announced.

When she takes office on July 1, Faust will have to consider the implementation of the new calendar. At the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Faust will have the help of computer scientist Michael D. Smith, who was appointed to the deanship on Monday.

“I think probably Mike is going to be a genius at this because he’s an engineer,” Faust said in a phone interview on Monday.


Although the calendar reforms proposed by the Verba committee have gained unanimous support from deans across the University, some members of FAS have expressed concerns over Bok’s decision not to allow the University’s faculties to vote on the changes.

“Given that the case for calendar change should be based on its academic advantages, it is the kind of thing that should be voted on by the faculties that would be affected by it,” Alford Professor of Natural Religion Thomas M. Scanlon Jr. wrote in an e-mailed statement to The Crimson before the new calendar was announced.

Bok has explained his decision not to submit changes to a vote by describing calendar reform as “a University-wide question which affects everyone at the University and not a single Faculty alone.”

“As a result, I invited everyone at Harvard, including faculty members from Arts and Sciences, to express their opinions,” he wrote in a statement to The Crimson last week.

Despite some skepticism, Bok said that 88 percent faculty across campus favored reform.


Calendar reform has been a perennial issue at Harvard. In September 2003, then-University President Lawrence H. Summers, Provost Steven E. Hyman, and the University’s deans publicly supported a universal calendar for Harvard’s schools and announced the creation of Verba’s cross-school committee.

Six months later, the committee published a report embracing a University-wide calendar with a “4-1-4” schedule—two four-month semesters, with a one-month “J-term” in between. But in the last two years of Summers’ tenure, the conversation on calendar reform stalled as FAS tackled general education legislation.

Just before the curricular review came to completion this spring, the UC released a 10,000 word position paper documenting their proposed calendar changes. A UC-sponsored undergraduate referendum on calendar reform followed, in which 84 percent of the 3,467 students who participated voted in favor of the Council’s proposal. The UC plan drew heavily upon that of the Verba report, but it did not endorse a J-term—instead citing language from the earlier report providing for an alternate configuration.

Two months before he would leave Mass. Hall, Bok threw his hat into the ring. He said on Friday that he waited until late in his tenure as interim president to discuss calendar reform because “several precipitating events occurred late in the year,” including the curricular review.

“In light of these events, and the long history of debate on this issue, I felt that I could not simply do nothing but instead should actively consider the possibility,” Bok wrote in his e-mail to The Crimson last week.

—Staff writer Christian B. Flow can be reached at

—Staff writer Claire M. Guehenno can be reached at