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Archive for Monday, January 19, 1998

FALL BREAK IDEA ENTERS UNCERTAIN TERRITORY

January 19, 1998

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Although no formal proposal has been made, Kansas University students and faculty are debating the idea of an October vacation.

Some Kansas University students and faculty describe the tenth month of the year as the "Dog Days of October."

It's the only complete month of the fall semester without a holiday from classes, and it's the middle of the longest, uninterrupted stretch of classes between Labor Day and Thanksgiving.

Now, KU officials and student leaders are considering a change that would allow students and faculty to curl up by the fireplace for a couple of days after mid-term exams.

Opinions vary as to whether such a proposal will fly and whether two or three days can be found in the calendar to accommodate a fall break.

"I think we should have it, a lot of other schools have it," KU sophomore Megan Gearheart said while heading to class Friday morning. "It would be nice if we had a fall break to regroup."

Standing nearby, KU junior Meagan Lynn offered a dissenting opinion, noting that another break would call into question the established semester routine.

"If they're going to have a fall break they should reconstruct the year system," Lynn said.

Alfred Lata, a lecturer in the chemistry department, said he would consider a fall break an act of kindness to young, frazzled students.

"For a lot of people, particularly freshmen, there are pressures that don't get relieved until Thanksgiving," Lata said. "Obviously, the answer to stress is to be relieved of it for a while."

Lata said he is acquainted with a number of therapists who counsel students. They tell him students are most stressed in mid to late fall.

"Their attitude changes after that," Lata said.

Groundswell

Around the Big 12, Oklahoma State University is currently the only school with a mid-October break. It has been in place for a number of years and is typically scheduled as a four-day weekend, including a Monday and Tuesday.

A proposal for a similar holiday recently got a green light from Kansas State University Student Senate. The KSU Faculty Senate will consider the proposal soon.

Among other Kansas Board of Regents Institutions, Wichita State University twice has tried to implement a fall break. Last year, the proposal was voted down by WSU President Eugene Hughes.

"I find it interesting that the (state's) three major universities are working on this, and doing it independently," said Carol Holstead, KU associate professor of journalism and head of the University Calendar Committee. "There seems to be a groundswell."

Holstead said the idea would probably be fleshed out at a meeting in late January.

After that, any formal proposal would be sent through KU Student Senate, Faculty Senate and the Senate Executive Committee, a governing body made up of faculty and student leaders. If approved, it would go to KU Provost David Shulenburger and KU Chancellor Robert Hemenway.

Depending on whether a proposal would affect the number of academic days, the Kansas Board of Regents could eventually be thrown into the mix.

Throughout the country, a number of major private and public universities have succumbed to the notion that a break in the middle of fall semester may be worthwhile or even necessary. Others have steadfastly resisted.

At KU, the concept is gaining favor.

"It appears to be an idea whose time has come," said Larry Maxey, KU professor of music and a calendar committee member.

Public opinion

What about the people who punch in their time cards morning and night, waiting for that week or two of vacation? What do they think about the idea of another break for KU students and faculty?

At Hallmark Cards Inc., 101 McDonald Drive., opinions ranged from "My kids are gone from there, I don't care" to "They get enough breaks."

Kathy Mountain, just getting off the midnight shift at Hallmark, said spring break, winter break and other holidays should suffice.

"They already get all this time off anyway," said Mountain, whose son goes to KU. "They're out of school more than they're in school."

One of the biggest battles, then, might have to be waged on the public-relations front.

"The downside of fall break is the public perception," Maxey said. "If they feel that we're going to be teaching less and working less in order to have a fall break, that's certainly counterproductive to the image we're trying to present to the state. And it contradicts the truth."

Those who think their tax dollars and tuition checks are funding more vacation days can at least take heart that the break would not be more time off, just different time off.

"Those days have got to come from somewhere," Maxey said. "They won't come out of thin air."

Therein lies the rub.

The number of academic and instructional days likely would not change -- the board of regents mandates that each of the six regents universities have 150 instructional days a year.

And as long as the changes don't mess with the nine-month state pay period, which runs from Aug. 15 to May 15 each year, faculty contracts would not be affected.

So, the most likely scenario at KU would be to consider some combination of starting a day earlier, compressing an already tight finals schedule from six days to five, or getting rid of Stop Day -- the buffer between classes and finals.

"In order to do this, the students would have to be willing to give up Stop Day, which prior to this has been sacrosanct," Maxey said.

Previous discussions also have included the possibility of teaching on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.

"There are so many out-of-state students who need a day of travel in order to be home on Thanksgiving," University Registrar Richard Morrell said. "So we've kind of stayed away from that."

In addition, general opposition to the idea remains.

"I don't think there's a consensus among all the interested parties as to whether we need a fall break," Morrell said. "That's something we'll have to gauge as well.

Or?

"We could solve this whole thing if we just moved Thanksgiving to the middle of October," Morrell joked. "The retailers would love that."

'Old-fashioned'

Elsewhere, approaches to calendar breaks vary tremendously.

Neither Iowa State University nor the University of Missouri has a fall break. But, by fall 1998, both will be taking a full week off at Thanksgiving.

Vanderbilt University already does. The University of Illinois is considering taking that entire week off.

As for October holidays, Duke, Purdue and Rice universities, as well as the universities of Virginia, Pennsylvania and North Carolina currently take an extra four-day weekend.

Princeton University takes an entire week off, in addition to the Thursday and Friday of Thanksgiving week.

"There is a movement, especially among eastern schools, to go to an even longer (fall) break," said Chris Brooks, a Wichita State associate professor of English and the member of the faculty senate who spearheaded both fall-break initiatives there.

Notre Dame, which requires 10 fewer academic days than Kansas regents institutions, includes an Easter break and four study-day breaks with the traditional vacations.

Private universities and those with qualified admissions, which will include the regents schools by the turn of the century, often have more liberal academic calendars.

"The idea that (regents schools) would need each and every hour of the 75-day calendar to educate (students) might become a little old-fashioned," Brooks said.

KU's calendar has been relatively the same since 1970, Morrell said. That year, the schedule changed from a traditional semester calendar, which started in mid-September and ended in mid-January, to the current late-August, late-December version.

In 1984, the board of regents took control of the system-wide calendars, mandating the current number of academic days.

"To my recollection, we're following approximately the same schedule that we always have," said Maxey, a longtime KU faculty member.

Down south

Three years ago, Brooks took a stab at fall break. It failed.

It failed again last year.

Brooks said the efforts were hamstrung by the fact that the regents determine the number of academic days.

"It has made it very hard to work with," Brooks said.

The proposal -- to start the semester two days earlier and have a two-day break in October -- passed WSU Faculty Senate and the Academic Affairs Committee, only to be turned down in September by President Hughes.

"One of the former provosts here at WSU did not like the idea at all and suggested that Thanksgiving break was sufficient for students," Brooks said.

Trying to find 75 days in the fall calendar is "very difficult," he added.

One of the options, forfeiting Study Day -- which is the same as KU's Stop Day -- was staunchly opposed.

"It was made very clear that people do not want that day given up," Brooks said.

Public schools

Though the idea has yet to pass muster at KU, there is still another consideration for the Lawrence community: The public school calendar typically has followed in the footsteps of KU's calendar.

Every year, Randy Weseman, assistant superintendent of educational programming, negotiates the calendar with the Lawrence Education Association. Within public schools, 177 student-attendance days are mandated, and there are 188 teacher-contracted days.

The agreed-upon dates are forwarded to the school board, which will soon consider the calendar for the 1998-99 school year.

Of late, most of the breaks have been synchronized.

"We take it for granted now that we take a spring break when KU takes a spring break," Weseman said. "I think it has served the interests of the community to be on the same break calendar."

"We have so many people that are tied to KU," he added. "It makes sense in that respect."

And if KU were to implement a fall break?

"I imagine we'll start to hear from parents ... and there will be some pressure to follow their calendar," Weseman said. "I know it will come up if they decide to do that, and we'll have to take a look at that."

-- Matt Gowen's phone message number is 832-7222. His e-mail address is gowen@ljworld.com.

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