Cal Poly should remain on quarter calendar, task force says

Group cites cost of possible conversion to semester schedule as downside

clambert@thetribunenews.comDecember 11, 2012 

A recurring theme emerged as members of a task force studied whether Cal Poly should consider changing to a semester calendar from its quarter system: “If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.”

The comment repeatedly emerged as the Semester Review Task Force — created by Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong in September — surveyed students, faculty and staff and evaluated the pros and cons of switching to a semester system.

On Tuesday, the task force issued its recommendation: that Cal Poly should not further pursue a conversion to semesters at this time.

“Given what would be involved and where Cal Poly is today, we didn’t think it was the right time,” said Rachel Fernflores, chairwoman of the task force and a faculty member in the philosophy department.

In its executive summary, the task force wrote it “could not determine that a semester calendar schedule leads to better learning outcomes than a quarter calendar schedule.”

“Although there are merits to the semester calendar ... the cost, stress and negative impact of conversion outweigh the merits,” the report states.

Task force members estimated the cost of converting to a semester system ranges from $18.1 million to $21.2 million over seven to 10 years, including costs to transform curriculum and convert software systems and technology.

Armstrong initiated the task force in part because the California State University system has been looking at establishing semesters as the common calendar for all 23 CSU campuses.

Cal Poly is one of six CSU campuses on quarters. The others are Cal State Bakersfield, Cal State East Bay, Cal State L.A., Cal Poly Pomona and Cal State San Bernardino.

The CSU Chancellor’s Office believes the move would save money and increase productivity in the long run, in part by converting the six quarter-based IT systems to a single semester-based system that would be run on a central system.

The task force “finds this strategy to be high-cost, high-risk and potentially low-reward,” according to its report.

The report was posted online after the task force held a meeting Tuesday. Armstrong also emailed the Cal Poly community, thanking the task force for “a thoughtful, well-researched report.”

“This report is an excellent catalyst for deeper conversations on campus about how to improve our curriculum,” he said in a statement.

Armstrong has asked the university’s Academic Senate and the Associated Students Inc. board to review the committee’s report in January. He has also scheduled two open forums in January so students, staff and faculty can share their views.

Armstrong is expected to make a recommendation to CSU leaders by the end of the winter quarter. The final decision will be made by the CSU system.

The task force’s undertaking was not the first time Cal Poly has debated switching to semesters. Fernflores said that in the past 25 years, the university has studied the issue three other times: in 1987, 1994 and 2001.

This go-around, the task force tried to glean input from thousands of students, alumni, faculty and staff members.

“We tried to produce a report that reflects a genuine outreach to a lot of people who may not normally have a voice,” she said.

Besides holding eight meetings and workshops, the task force also emailed a survey to 24,425 students, staff and current and former faculty members. It received 7,171 responses.

When asked their overall opinion of switching to semesters, 6,612 people responded — 74.2 percent were either opposed or strongly opposed to the idea, while 13.9 percent favored or strongly favored a switch.

Associated Students also launched an outreach project, gathering feedback from more than 1,000 students in various colleges and levels of study.

Students in the College of Agriculture, Food, and Environmental Sciences, for example, said the quarter system better aligns with the harvest season, giving them increased field experience.

Freshman students said the fast pace of the quarter system sometimes makes adjustment difficult, but a variety of courses allows them to pursue a wide range of interests.

“Students wear the quarter system like a ‘badge of honor,’ ” according to a summary of ASI’s research. “We feel that we have been extremely successful in a fast-paced setting that has pushed us to our limits, fostering the skills that will prepare us for rewarding careers.”

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