Cal Poly administrators are examining the possibility of moving the university toward a semester-based calendar in response to statewide pressure to standardize the California State University (CSU) system.
A CSU task force co-chaired by Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong, among other presidents of universities still using the quarter system, aims to determine the logistics of transitioning the colleges to semesters. Though Armstrong said he wants to hear opinions from campus representatives, he believes Cal Poly would do well using semesters.
“If I had to make a call today, I’d say we should look really seriously about converting,” Armstrong said. “But I don’t have to make a call today. I think we should discuss it.”
Armstrong spoke on the issue Tuesday at a special meeting of the Academic Senate. He told the dozens of professors in attendance his thoughts on the controversial debate, but made it clear he wants to have campus-wide discussion related to a semester-based calendar.
Though the university president said when he first arrived at Cal Poly, he did not believe it was the right time to consider moving to semesters, mounting pressure from the CSU Board of Trustees has caused the university to reconsider its position.
“The CSU is going to force our hand on this,” Armstrong said. “We’re not going to force our hand on it this spring, but we don’t need to take years.”
Talks have been pending for years in the semester-dominated CSU system to standardize the universities on a common calendar, Armstrong said. Seventeen of the 23 schools currently use semesters, and some of the remaining schools are considering a switch in the near future.
CSU officials say the switch would be a cost-saving measure for the entire system.
“There is a lot of synergy on the CSU campuses,” CSU spokesperson Liz Chapin said. “It would save money to have all of the schools on the same calendar.”
Armstrong said the transition would take resources and money in the short term, but he believes it is necessary if the university would end up in a better state than it is now.
“There’s a long list of pros, long list of cons for quarters; there’s a long list of pros, long list of cons for semesters,” Armstrong said. “If we convert, it will be a lot of work. It will take money, it will cost money.”
Recently-hired provost Kathleen Enz Finken has experience with transitioning from quarters to semesters. When she taught at Minnesota State University, Moorhead, Enz Finken saw the school change as part of a larger movement in the state’s colleges. Like Armstrong, she is a proponent of the semester system and said she believes it would bring a positive change to Cal Poly.
“In my experience, the semester system, for me, was definitely preferable,” she said. “It’s harder for me to understand what specifically about Cal Poly would be different.”
Enz Finken said it would, however, take years to turn Cal Poly around and reorient all of their systems to fit with semesters. She said the change would affect everyone from technology specialists who would have to change computer software to athletics programs who would have different calendars for how students’ academic calendars sync with athletic ones.
“I’ve seen these processes go really, really well, and I’ve seen them go poorly,” Enz Finken said. “It’s all about planning.”
Though there is what Armstrong calls a “soft mandate,” to make the change to semesters, he said he still wants to solicit student input on the decision. Students, he said, tend to be in favor of quarters, whereas faculty and staff are split on the issue.
Biological sciences junior Kristy Liu said she thinks Cal Poly works better on quarters because of it’s fast-paced environment.
“Being in a quarter system might be better,” she said. “I like it because if you don’t like a class, you’re out of that class sooner.”
Though she said semesters might be less stressful than 10-week quarters, like many students on campus, she plans to graduate by the time a change could be made.
“If it were to happen, it’d probably be after I graduate,” Liu said. “So it doesn’t really affect me.”
Faculty, on the other hand, seem to be split on the issue.
Glen Thorncroft, a mechanical engineering professor and president of the California Faculty Association Chapter at Cal Poly, said professors in more technical majors tend to prefer quarters; those in non-technical departments, he said, are more likely to support converting to semesters.
Thorncroft himself is an adamant proponent of quarters. After Tuesday’s Academic Senate meeting, he said he was sorely disappointed in Armstrong “resigning to semesters” like the rest of the CSU.
“I think when you really add up all the advantages of both systems, the quarter system produces a better product and a unique product for Cal Poly,” Thorncroft said. “I think semesters is the vanilla solution. Trying to be like everyone else isn’t the answer. When you’re No. 1, you don’t turn around very often to see who’s chasing you. I’m sorry, but that’s where I stand on it.”
But Armstrong said if there ever was a time to make the change, he wants to start planning for it now. The committee he is co-chairing will provide funding to help with the transition, and he said he wants to get feedback from the students before CSU Chancellor Charles Reed makes a final decision on if the quarter-calendar schools will need to convert.
“It’s controversial because many people believe it’s really part of our uniqueness, part of our mystique,” Armstrong said. “Certainly it’s a part of it. I believe the greatness and uniqueness at Cal Poly runs much deeper than that and is more complicated just the fact we’re on quarters. Certainly we need to talk about it, we need to discuss the pros and cons of quarters and semesters. But we need to make a decision and move on.”