Break or no break, fall semester needs fixing

Members of the General Faculty, which comprises most (but not all) of the professors on this campus, vote today on two proposed amendments to the University’s academic calendar. The first would institute a fall break on the Monday and Tuesday of the ninth week of the fall semester, and the second would move the fall semester’s start date from Wednesday to Monday in the fourth week of August.

Students and some faculty members have already demonstrated significant desire for a fall break, which many believe would provide a brief but welcome respite in the 10 uninterrupted class weeks between Labor Day and Thanksgiving. Similar proposals passed unanimously in Student Government and the Graduate Student Assembly, and on Jan. 28, a majority of members on the Faculty Council, an elected representative body of 113 UT professors, approved the proposal as well.

As students, we like the idea of a fall break, which we believe would alleviate stress in the middle of the semester. Students, especially new students transitioning to life at UT-Austin, would find the fall semester more pleasant with a break to look forward to. And given that many of UT’s peer institutions have implemented similar breaks, the proposal seems achievable.

But those gains to student happiness could potentially be offset by faculty headaches and disrupted course structures. We think it’s best to defer to faculty judgment on whether it would be wise to implement a fall break. If they feel it would compromise the quality of a UT education, we should respect their hesitancy as the people responsible for educating us.

Because the proposal is deemed “major legislation,” it requires a vote of the General Faculty. At least 366 faculty members must attend the meeting to meet the required 15 percent quorum. Then, if a majority votes in favor of it, the proposal will move on to UT President William Powers Jr. for approval.

But in addition to demonstrations of student and faculty support, the proposal has engendered a significant outpouring of opposition from other faculty members, especially those in the College of Natural Sciences and Cockrell School of Engineering. Much of their disapproval hinges on the proposed break’s interference with laboratory courses, which require special setup procedures and are thus generally feasible only during full weeks. Between fall’s Wednesday start, Labor Day and Thanksgiving, the semester currently offers only about 80 percent of the number of full weeks of instruction that the spring semester does.

In one of 61 complaints filed by faculty against the fall break proposal, Seth Bank, an engineering professor, expressed those concerns. “When coupled with UT’s commitment to preparing undergraduates for life in four years,” he writes, “I believe the proposed action will put undue additional burden on students in engineering and the physical sciences.”

Another problem with the proposed scheduled respite is that it might unintentionally encourage students to miss even more class the break’s allotted two days. John Deigh, a law professor, articulated this claim in another written complaint: “From long experience with the Thanksgiving break I know that too many students, when given a two day break, regularly turn it into more than two days.  Since that is already occurring at Thanksgiving, I think it is pedagogically unwise to introduce a second such disruption into the fall semester.”

Kori Rady, a government and corporate communications sophomore who authored the fall break legislation in Student Government, is unconvinced by dissenting faculty arguments. Not being enrolled in either the natural sciences or engineering colleges, Rady was hesitant to criticize those faculty members’ disagreement with his proposal. But he points to peer institutions, such as Harvard, which currently only have 10 or 11 full weeks of instruction for laboratory courses in the fall compared to UT’s 12. Furthermore, Rady said a fall break could potentially help with retention and recruiting, because “a lot of high school students would love a fall break.” For all of us, Rady says, some time off in the fall would “aid the big mental health crisis” he sees on campus.

The majority of faculty members in the General Faculty agree. Many were inclined to put student interests first. Notable exceptions include William Doolittle, professor of geography, who wrote in a complaint, “I see no need for this, especially because of Thanksgiving. If it were up to me, I would eliminate spring break.”

The benefits of a fall break would not be lost on students. It remains to be seen whether faculty agree that a break would be worthwhile, and even with their approval, the proposal will still face significant obstacles before becoming policy. But regardless of the outcome of today’s vote, the stress that new and returning students face in the fall ranks as an issue that demands examination, and not just in terms of adding a new break.

We agree with Michael Morton, president of the Senate of College Councils, who said of the fall break proposal: “One thing that’s been a little disheartening about this entire conversation is that I don’t think we’re really addressing the root issue that we’re trying to address.” The traumas of fall semester remain significant for students, and the introduction of a break should only be one of many conversations had on campus about how to improve those initial experiences of college life for UT students.