A proposal from the university president sparked debate fall quarter when the possibility of semesters coming to Cal Poly lit a flame under the usually sleepy campus. Though a task force studying the issue ended months of work with a clear rejection of semesters, the president says his research will carry on as planned.
President Jeffrey Armstrong began the 2012-13 academic year by presenting Cal Poly with what some called a radical idea for a president in just his second year at the university — Cal Poly should convert from quarters to semesters, he said.
And though Armstrong’s Semester Review Task Force answered with a definite “No,” at the beginning of winter break, the president said he wants to continue asking questions about conversion.
“The university has to be able to ask big, hard questions,” Armstrong said. “I think we did a pretty good job with asking the big, hard questions. We didn’t get a B+, we didn’t get an A, but we did pretty good.”
The task force rejected Armstrong’s “semester hypothesis” in a 135-page document approved and presented to him on Dec. 11, 2012. Soon after receiving the report, the president wrote an email to campus in which he said he would go on as planned with further examination of semesters, despite survey results which indicate Cal Poly is strongly against converting.
“The process is not over,” he said, “And it’d be great if we could have this conversation and say what’s going to happen. But that’s not where we are.”
In a survey sent to more than 24,000 with ties to Cal Poly, just 14 percent of the respondents said they were “in favor” or “strongly in favor” of bringing semesters to the university. The numbers against conversion were visibly higher, with 74 percent being either “opposed” or “strongly opposed” to semesters.
Students showed most opposition to the change, which the task force said would take at least seven years to implement. Eighty-one percent of students were against semesters, while just 10 percent favored conversion.
These numbers contrasted with what Associated Students, Inc. (ASI) found in its November survey on the topic. Then, ASI leaders said their outreach could not determine one uniform student opinion on semesters, but students would embrace it if presented with a good reason.
Based on the task force’s numbers, it appears students did not see that reason.
“It’s exciting to see that (the task force recommended staying on quarters),” ASI President and social sciences senior Katie Morrow said. “I think that’s good. It shows we can be unique and, for whatever reason, it works here.”
Both ASI and the Academic Senate, which represents faculty at Cal Poly, are expected to give Armstrong formal feedback on the task force’s report in February, Morrow said. Academic Senate Chair and statistics professor Steve Rein did not respond to request for comment during winter break, but Morrow said she anticipates ASI drafting a declaration in favor of quarters that she will present to the university president.
For now, Morrow said she believes staying on quarters is right for Cal Poly, and has asked members of ASI’s Board of Directors to form their own positions as they gauge students’ reactions to the task force’s report.
The task force’s decision to reject semesters, along with the Academic Senate and ASI recommendations, will shape Armstrong’s discussions with new California State University Chancellor Timothy White on the possible conversion. Though the ultimate authority in the CSU rests with the Board of Trustees, White and Armstrong will work together to decide if Cal Poly should join the 17 CSU campuses already using semesters.
“It’s already pretty clear from the campus, from the task force, that Cal Poly wants to stay on quarters,” Armstrong said. “But we still have to look at all the ramifications and what the chancellor’s response is.”
Several familiar with the debate said outgoing chancellor Charles Reed, who left office at the turn of the new year, has long wanted all 23 CSU campuses to use semesters. The Board of Trustees created a committee of the six quarter campuses’ presidents, which began meeting early in 2012, but no plan for systemwide conversion appears to be in the works.
At least two of the six quarter schools have already expressed desire to switch to semesters, and others are considering it: CSU Bakersfield and Los Angeles both announced their intention to convert, while editors at the CSU East Bay student newspaper endorsed semesters in a November editorial. But CSU spokesperson Liz Chapin said action from the Office of the Chancellor is pending further discussion by the presidents’ committee.
At Cal Poly, the task force identified several factors in its report which present obstacles to making a switch, including a multi-million dollar price tag. To ensure conversion and planning are effective, the task force established four guiding principles to lead its discussions: student success, Learn by Doing, fiscal responsibility and faculty and staff morale and vitality. These were created to “ground the effort and ensure success,” according to the report.
In an email to Mustang Daily, task force chair and philosophy professor Rachel Fernflores wrote that the guiding principles were ideas developed within the task force based on feedback, but do not necessarily represent the entire campus. Fernflores added in the email that it would be up to individual groups to choose whether they want to endorse the principles or make changes.
“Should we take on some form of substantive change, others, for instance the Academic Senate, would need to think about whether they wanted to adopt the guiding principles the task force developed,” Fernflores wrote. “If the campus decided to adopt them, then they could use them in their decision-making as deliberate change occurs.”
After working with these principles, task force members unanimously rejected Armstrong’s hypothesis that semesters should come to Cal Poly in its final meeting, and instead endorsed the quarter system. Fernflores said she postponed the meeting — which was originally closed to the public and to be held during finals week — to the week after students’ finals to give the task force more time to finish parts of the report. Fernflores also opened the meeting, which gathered local TV and newspaper attention.
Though Armstrong said task force members kept their work strictly confidential — one member likened it to Apple’s notorious secrecy before product announcements — the university president said he had an idea the task force would endorse staying on quarters before the report was published on Dec. 11.
“I had an idea of what the headline was going to be before the report came out, but it was just a short time before that,” Armstrong said.
Rick Bergquist, the only alumni representative on the task force and a well-known advocate of the quarter system, said that as more input came to the group, the pro-quarter viewpoint became clear.
“I think (Armstrong) stated it well that he had a hypothesis,” Bergquist said. “The scientific method is you have a hypothesis then go out and test it … at the end you look at the data.
“It’s a very difficult and expensive thing to change systems.”
It was a surprise to some to see the Semester Review Task Force publicly disagree with Armstrong’s opinion on semesters. Though the university president took several occasions during fall quarter to kill a rumor that he had established the task force with the sole purpose of justifying a conversion, some still remained skeptical of its mission.
Business administration sophomore and Cal Poly Interhousing Council President Michael Tseng said many felt the task force was just a formality when a pro-semester decision on the matter had already been made. He tried twice to bring task force members into the on-campus residence halls to present information for residents, but said members could not find time to come because of scheduling conflicts.
“It was kind of like one of those issues where students feel like they didn’t really have a choice in the matter,” Tseng said. “However, I think the task force did a really good job coming to what I hope they think is the best decision.”
Armstrong dismissed the criticism he’s received since establishing the task force, including allegations that he was hired by the CSU to convert Cal Poly to semesters and save money for the system. He said though he is aware of rumors about him, they are just that: rumors.
“At the end of the day, even if we were to announce we’re staying on quarters, there will still be some people who have some negative things to say about it,” he said.
In the task force’s report, members wrote that money spent to bring semesters to Cal Poly would be too much to justify any possible savings for the CSU system. Though the task force made clear in its decision that money was not the sole reason against recommending semesters, the anticipated cost ranged between $18 million and $21 million in changes to curriculum, academic support, administrative support and information technology — the highest of any comparable universities that have made the switch.
The CSU has not predicted how much money could be saved if the six quarter campuses switch to semesters, but the task force’s report said the price to convert Cal Poly was not justified by potential benefits from “synergy” between the CSU campuses. It went on to say that any money allocated for changing to semesters could be better spent on other projects for the university.
Armstrong disagreed with the task force’s thinking on this point, saying he did not think it was reasonable to recommend spending the funds on other improvements. This is because he said possible one-time money from the CSU would be reserved specifically for converting quarter campuses to semesters.
“That’s not the way it would work,” he said. “The chancellor makes the decision of how money at the CSU is used.”
When comparing Cal Poly’s $18 million minimum price tag to other universities, the report identifies its cost as the highest of colleges across the country that have made the switch. The University of Cincinnati, which had the largest total cost of schools identified by the committee, spent approximately $13 million to convert while serving more than twice the number of students as Cal Poly.
Fernflores said the cost is necessary to provide reasonable levels of support to faculty and staff who would execute the change, especially in light of stagnant salaries for several years.
“It was important to the task force that if we do convert, it (wouldn’t) happen by putting an even greater burden on the faculty and staff,” Fernflores wrote in her email. “In addition, one of the main reasons the estimated cost is so high is because of the way we use technology at Cal Poly. All of the computer programming would need to change to reflect a new calendar system and this would be a huge, expensive job.”
Along with outlining a cost, the report included a pros-and-cons list for quarters and semesters, something many on campus asked for as a tool to help them form an opinion. Though the task force reasoned that quality students could come from both quarter- and semester-based schools — one employer of Cal Poly students told the group that quarters and semesters have no impact on hiring or on employee performance — it identified more “demerits” for semesters than it did for quarters.
The task force offered 15 negative aspects of semester-based universities: among them, members said they offer less variety of courses, force students to pay tuition in larger chunks, include academic work during spring break, can limit summer school offerings and can cause student procrastination.
Quarters, conversely, only earned six demerits on the report. The task force said using quarters can lead to faculty and staff working during spring break, fewer internship and work opportunities, more difficulty in exchange programs with semester campuses, more opportunities to fail courses and shorter opportunities for faculty development.
One initiative that Armstrong had previously said could benefit from CSU semester conversion is ease for transfer students coming from community colleges. The CSU has searched for ways to ease the process since California passed Senate Bill 1440, which guaranteed CSU admission for students who complete an associate degree for transfer at a community college.
The Semester Review Task Force, however, reported that juniors at Cal Poly are not at a disadvantage if they come from a community college. This, the task force said, is because Cal Poly is the only quarter-campus in the CSU that has major-admission standards which ensure students are prepared before they are admitted.
“I knew that our transfer students were doing fine,” Armstrong said. “My point with Senate Bill 1440 was that it was one of the major drivers of the CSU to start this whole process.”
Just as changing to semesters might not have a large impact on students transferring to Cal Poly, industry leaders surveyed by the task force such as Anheuser-Busch, Apple and Raytheon, largely said they would continue to recruit at Cal Poly whether the university uses quarters or semesters.
Still, many appreciated the current quality of students produced by Cal Poly’s quarter system. To most, a change seemed irrelevant. To some, unnecessary.
“We really love the CS and CE curriculum at Cal Poly,” one employer, which was unnamed in the report, told the task force. “The balance of theory and practicum is invaluable to the development team. We find that your graduates are very well prepared to enter the workforce and add value immediately, and sometimes at a faster pace than students from other universities we recruit from. The last time I was on campus, it didn’t seem that many of your current CS/CE students were in favor of the change and many of our alum’s mentioned they liked the fast paced nature of the quarter system.”
Armstrong said though he intentionally made the report public immediately after he received it, he plans to play his cards “close to the vest” until feedback from campus arrives. It would be inappropriate for a leader, he said, to make his judgment public until the bigger picture emerges and the campus has an opportunity to respond to the report.
But whatever feedback campus sends in the coming months, including responses from two open forums near the end of January, the president said his final recommendation will be based on his idea of how semesters would enhance, or detract from, student success at Cal Poly.
“If we are going to be better served — that is, the students are going to be better served — by going to semesters, then I’ll be stubborn and go that way,” Armstrong said. “If the students will be better served by going to quarters, then I’ll be stubborn and go that way.
“I’ll reach a decision and I’ll feel good about it. And if I don’t, I’ll dig deeper.”
What were the top words used in comments submitted to the task force through the survey? Check out the image below: