Cal Poly will likely convert to semesters — but not for several years

Move is expected to save money and increase productivity in the long run

clambert@thetribunenews.comMarch 11, 2013 

Despite local preferences to retain Cal Poly’s quarter system, the campus will likely begin the process to convert to semesters by the end of the decade, university President Jeffrey Armstrong wrote in a letter emailed to students, faculty and staff Monday.

California State University has not issued a final decision about whether the six CSU campuses on the quarter system will switch to semesters in phases, though the CSU Chancellor’s Office is moving in that direction, spokesman Mike Uhlenkamp said.

News of the likely switch spread quickly across Cal Poly’s campus Monday and was viewed by many as a done deal. Several also mentioned the need to ensure that Cal Poly retains the elements that make it successful and unique.

In a phone interview Monday, Armstrong said CSU Chancellor Timothy White has “fundamentally made a decision that it’s best for everyone to convert” and believes the question of what will happen to Cal Poly’s quarters has been answered.

Following a recent discussion with White and the five other university presidents with campuses on the quarter system, Armstrong wrote Monday, “there was a clear understanding … that the benefits of a common calendar outweigh individual campus preferences.”

The CSU has for several years wanted to move the entire system onto a common calendar. The Chancellor’s Office said the move would save money and increase productivity in the long run — though it could be costly to implement.

Besides Cal Poly, the other CSU campuses on quarters are Cal State Bakersfield, Cal State East Bay, Cal State L.A., Cal Poly Pomona and Cal State San Bernardino.

Armstrong, who had recommended to White that Cal Poly remain on quarters, called the likely change “a compromise.”

“In this case the chancellor didn’t take my recommendation, but at least there was strong recognition … that we need more time,” Armstrong said in the phone interview with The Tribune. “We have a chance to study how to implement a semester system that could keep the classes and variety that is important (to Cal Poly).”

If it moves ahead, Cal Poly would not change to semesters until the other five CSU campuses move forward.

Doing so would “give Cal Poly plenty of lead time to identify and capture what is best about quarters and retain those elements in the new calendar,” Armstrong wrote in the letter to the Cal Poly campus. The process to convert could take two to three years, he said later.

Several stakeholders on campus — including students, the Academic Senate and a task force established by Armstrong — had urged Cal Poly to remain on a quarter system.

In December, Armstrong’s task force recommended the university should not further pursue a conversion to semesters at this time. It estimated the cost of converting would range from $18.1 million to $21.2 million over seven to 10 years, including costs to transform curriculum and convert software systems and technology.

The Academic Senate, which represents about 1,000 faculty members, endorsed the recommendation. Forty-three percent of students participated in an ASI student government advisory vote, with 89 percent voting in favor of quarters.

“Our campus knows what’s good for it,” said Glen Thorncroft, a mechanical engineering professor and faculty union president. “They know what they’re about to lose.”

Students benefit under the quarter system because they’re able to take a variety of courses and the pace helps prepare them for their careers, he said.

“We’re going to do what it takes to keep Cal Poly the unique institution that it is despite the race to mediocrity that this decision represents,” Thorncroft added.

Agribusiness professor Wayne Howard said his concerns center around having enough time and resources to make the transition so Cal Poly doesn’t lose its unique hands-on approach.

The campus-wide effort to study a conversion to semesters could help the university during its transition by identifying issues that must be addressed, Howard said.

“In my department we have curriculum that we spent a long time thinking about and we’re going to have to modify it dramatically,” he said.

The task force also studied areas in which Cal Poly excels, said Derek Majewski, a committee member and fourth-year biology major.

“I think the work we put in was very beneficial,” he said. “We know and are closer to knowing what makes us Cal Poly and how to be able to retain that during the conversion.”

Meanwhile, Cal Poly ASI President Katie Morrow said students she talked to Monday are looking to what comes next.

“I wouldn’t say I’m disappointed,” said Morrow, a social sciences senior. “I think that we really need to come together because everyone will play a role in this conversion. I think we can see it as an opportunity.”

In a letter written last month to White, the CSU chancellor, and obtained by The Tribune, Armstrong mentioned several benefits to remaining on the quarter system.

For example, the university is putting in place a software system geared toward quarters so that faculty and staf f can more precisely schedule courses over several years. This will help Cal Poly increase graduation rates in part by being able to offer more classes when students need them.

Over the past few weeks, Armstrong has had several conversations with White and the other five CSU presidents whose campuses are on quarters, he wrote in the letter to the Cal Poly campus.

White is now moving toward a decision that the quar ter-based campuses should convert to semesters in phases. The phased approach would allow the CSU to defray 75 percent of each university’s anticipated costs, Armstrong wrote.

“I know that feelings about quarters vs. semesters on our campus run strong,” Armstrong added.

“However, given the direction we have received, this is a reasonable approach. I understand and support the chancellor’s direction and look forward to joining you in demonstrating that Cal Poly will continue to excel under semesters just as it has under quarters.”

To read Armstrong’s letter, go to http://president.calpoly.edu/semesterreview/.

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