Poly's quarter system doesn't need to be changed

An entrance to Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo.
An entrance to Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo.

When you have a thriving operation that achieves a unique brand of success within the auspices of a larger organization, usually the last thing you want to hear is a comment like the one CSU Chancellor Timothy White dropped during a visit Thursday at Cal Poly.

“My responsibility is beyond San Luis Obispo — to think about the whole Cal State as a system and (what) things we can do to make it more successful,” White said, in addressing the controversy over whether to convert the campus from the quarter system to semesters.

While it’s true that his concerns span way beyond those of our excellent hometown university, it always makes me leery when bosses descend from on high with unifying master plans that may or may not actually be good for smaller, individual properties.

Currently the vast majority of the Cal State University’s campuses are on semesters, leaving Cal Poly as one of only six out of 23 operating on quarters. And two others are in the process of changing over.

The CSU’s goal is to enhance opportunities for curriculum sharing across campuses, and while this sounds good on its face, I’m hard-pressed not to imagine a grim and detached future where single educators broadcast their lessons out to the glassy-eyed masses statewide.

I have faith it would never come to that, but in the era of maximum efficiencies, these are the kinds of end-of-days scenarios that pop up when one lets the mind wander.

Cal Poly is what it is because it’s been allowed to develop its own philosophy and system of achieving excellence.

Small class sizes and quick terms mesh well with a high-achieving student body that is committed and eager to learn.

That’s not to say Chico State doesn’t also turn out good graduates, but we all know which campus is the crown jewel of the CSU.

When I was at Cal Poly, I loved the quarter system because it allowed students to take a wide variety of classes in rapid fashion.

You could take an elective here and there without it being a burden and while still having the bandwidth to maintain progress on your major.

Likewise, if you drew a dud of a class, you could console yourself in knowing the pain would only last 10 weeks.

I once took a medieval British literature class that made me want to jam an ice pick in my ear. Trust me when I say the end of that quarter came none too soon and nine weeks later than I personally would have preferred.

Quarters also have a nice seasonality to them. Fall finishes up just in time for Christmas. Spring break comes at the end of winter. It makes sense to keep these blocks of learning tight and cohesive.

So I’m a skeptic of semesters in particular and of breaking things that don’t need fixing, in general.

Cal Poly is just such a case and has earned the right more than other campuses to play a major role in deciding its fate on this issue.

So what, do I think Cal Poly is special, that it deserves special treatment?

Yes, I do, and yes, it is.

I hope this new chancellor understands that.

Joe Tarica is the presentation editor for The Tribune. Reach him at or on Twitter @joetarica.