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Cal State L.A. ponders switching to semesters

March 25, 2009|Larry Gordon and Gale Holland
  • Cal State L.A. faculty senate head Kevin Baaske, criticized the pace of quarters as too frenetic.
Cal State L.A. faculty senate head Kevin Baaske, criticized the pace of… (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles…)

Semesters or quarters?

Students, faculty and others are debating that question now at Cal State L.A., after a 40-year tradition across California of brawls about academic calendars. Short of faculty layoffs or student fee hikes, little raises the ire of academics more than messing with schedules for final exams, lab projects, vacations and sabbaticals.

"People have strong opinions on this," said Judy Smith, vice provost of undergraduate education at UCLA, which considered switching to the semester system six years ago but decided to stick with quarters. "It's an emotional topic because it gets at the heart of what faculty think about education."

The semester schedule -- two terms a year, each usually 15 to 17 weeks, plus exams -- allows deeper and less-panicked exploration of a subject, gives students time for research projects and may save colleges money, its fans say. The quarter system -- three during an academic year, plus another in the summer, each typically 10 to 12 weeks -- allows students to take more classes, pushes them toward graduation and gets unpopular courses over quickly, supporters contend.

Cal State L.A., a 21,000-student campus east of downtown, is on the quarter calendar, as are six of the 22 other Cal States and about 15% of colleges nationwide. Last month, the school's President James M. Rosser authorized a planning process to examine converting the campus to a semester calendar. Rosser said he had made no decision yet, but news of the proposal set off protests by some students and faculty.

Rosser, president for 30 years, declined an interview request, saying it would be premature to discuss the proposal publicly, according to spokesman Sean Kearns. If the plan is approved, it would take about three years to implement, Kearns said, adding that there is no estimate yet for what the shift would cost.

A university website said the conversion, also considered in 2001, would make the school more efficient; for example, two registration and grading periods would be needed per year instead of three.

It also suggested that semesters would improve the learning environment for Cal State L.A. students, 70% of whom need remedial math or English classes. Students' lives "are often very complicated, and semester-length courses allow students more time to overcome the life crises that occur too often," the website said.

Cal State L.A.'s faculty senate Chairman Kevin Baaske, a communication studies professor, criticized the quarters pace as too frenetic and said students are at a disadvantage for internships, which are mainly on a semesters schedule.

In results announced in January, the faculty senate voted to move the idea forward to a planning study that could take a year, but other faculty and student groups opposed it.

Jennifer Chemel, president of the campus student government, said many students like quarters because "you move quicker, you take a lot of different classes." Most students work, and many are parents, she said, with some afraid of losing the flexibility of the quarter calendar. She said many students transfer from other Cal States to Cal State L.A. because they prefer the quarter system.

Some students believe a switch to semesters would extend the time it takes to graduate. Only about 35% of freshmen who started in 2000 graduated within six years, according to university figures. Education experts say the effect of either calendar on graduation rates is not clear.

A 2001 study by the American Assn. of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers found that 77% of colleges and universities nationwide were on semesters and only 15% on quarters (the rest were on other calendars). Among the minority, most of Stanford University has been on the quarter system for 91 years; and its law school, now on semesters, is to join the rest of the campus' calendar in the fall.

Anita Levy, an official with the American Assn. of University Professors, said the quarter system is rare outside California. She disliked that calendar when she was a graduate literature student and faculty member at UC Santa Barbara, describing it as "really grueling." For example, during a quarter's survey course, "By the time you get teeth into anything, you are done," said Levy, who later taught on the semester system at other colleges.

Cal State Dominguez Hills switched to semesters more than 20 years ago, according to interim Vice Provost David Karber. Changing course content and schedules was painful, but he said students and faculty are happy with the switch.

Of the nine undergraduate campuses in the University of California system, only Berkeley, which made the change in 1983, and 4-year-old Merced are on semesters.

Most of UCLA has been on the quarter calendar since 1966, though its medical and law schools are on semesters. The campus has had grueling debates about returning to the semester system, most recently in an effort that died in 2003. Many professors feared that fewer terms a year would mean fewer opportunities to teach classes about their academic specialties, recalled Smith, the UCLA vice provost who was coauthor of a report then about the calendars' pros and cons.

James C. Blackburn, the Cal State system's director of enrollment management services, said research is inconclusive about how the two calendars affect learning.

"Admissions and records people love to argue about calendars," he said, "but it would be hard to say there is an absolutely, compelling, nationally proven reason for one or the other."

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larry.gordon@latimes.com

gale.holland@latimes.com

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