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Faculty workgroup to advise on winter/spring calendar changes and consider fall calendar and educational opportunities

Northwestern University Provost Jonathan Holloway has appointed two faculty members to co-chair a faculty workgroup charged with advising on the implementation of winter/spring calendar changes and considering fall quarter calendar opportunities, which could include providing a window for an innovative, concentrated period of instruction between the fall and winter quarters.

Bob Gundlach, director of the Cook Family Writing Program in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and professor of linguistics, and Karen Smilowitz, the Charles Deering McCormick Professor of Teaching Excellence and professor of industrial engineering and management sciences in the McCormick School of Engineering, will partner with Holloway this summer to identify Northwestern faculty to serve on the workgroup.

This effort stems from Northwestern’s ongoing examination of its academic calendar and educational offerings, which has included the Faculty Senate’s unanimous endorsement in spring 2017 of proposed changes to the calendar, Commencement date and final exam administration. Since then, University staff members have worked to develop implementation plans to operationalize the proposed changes.

President Morton Schapiro and Holloway have approved changes related to Spring Break, final exam administration and Commencement for adoption as soon as the 2019–20 academic year. These changes include:

  • Extending Spring Break: The only break after the Winter Recess will now be extended to mitigate the existing challenges associated with the current 23-week stretch between January and June. The change will expand the current nine-day break by one to two days by optimizing final exam periods and adding a spring holiday.
  • Final Exam Administration: The proposed changes aim to provide faculty and students more flexibility on the administration of exams to address challenges stemming from Northwestern’s late-ending academic year and the lack of central processes for requesting scheduling accommodations. The proposal includes the optional use — by faculty — of early or remote exams and the establishment of a single, central protocol for those seeking to use these options, including the implementation of software to support this process. Implementation will work within school-based governance and policies.
  • Commencement Date: Commencement will now be held closer to the end of classes and finals, with the goal of ending the school year earlier and increasing participation in our graduation ceremonies.   

The President and Provost have also requested more detailed proposals around the academic opportunities for fall quarter—which Gundlach’s and Smilowitz’s workgroup will develop — in addition to other potential fall quarter changes.

“The work of this group will be instrumental in exploring the timing of fall quarter as well as whether and how we might offer new educational opportunities before, during and after fall quarter. The group will carefully vet proposals and innovative ideas and develop action plans that ensure smooth implementation and offer our University community clear benefits,” said Lindsay Chase-Lansdale, vice provost for academics and associate provost for faculty in the Office of the Provost. “We understand the complexity of these potential changes, and we will be sure that any updates to the academic calendar and the related educational offerings have an overall positive impact on our academic experience.”

Considering opportunities for innovation

The workgroup’s charge includes conducting a comprehensive review of existing and potential curricular and co-curricular opportunities in the September and December weeks that precede and follow the 10 to 11 weeks of the fall academic term. Specific areas of focus will evolve as the faculty workgroup develops recommendations, but anticipated benefits include:

  • Providing students with the opportunity to experience new, experimental classes or choose to focus intently on already established, specific class and subject areas — both of which allow students to gain credit while offsetting time demands they would experience during the normal academic year
  • Allowing students to choose not to participate in an additional educational experience so some could use the time as an extended break to recharge and reduce stress

The faculty workgroup will also consider how the current fall quarter could potentially be adapted to ensure completion by Thanksgiving:

  • Helping relieve the intensity of the fall recruiting period for students pursuing fellowships, jobs, and other opportunities
  • Ending the practice of students having to decide whether to leave for Thanksgiving break and then return for finals for a few days, or to remain on campus for the holiday
  • Adding a substantial break in the calendar

Background on the calendar review

The changes to the academic calendar originated out of recommendations from the faculty-led Undergraduate Academic Experience Task Force, which in January 2016 made a number of recommendations intended to enhance the undergraduate academic experience at Northwestern. More recently, leaders in the Office of the Provost and Faculty Senate, with support from the Office of Change Management, engaged the campus community in a renewed dialogue on the academic calendar, initiating a process to gather additional data on the underlying challenges with the current calendar and partner with the campus community to identify potential solutions. Together, they engaged 17 groups of faculty, students and staff through early spring 2017, resulting in the slate of proposed changes the Faculty Senate unanimously endorsed last year.

Next steps

As noted, co-chairs Gundlach and Smilowitz will work with Holloway throughout the summer to determine group membership with the expectation that the group’s work will begin this fall. Any questions about this workgroup or its charge can be directed to Jake Julia, Vice Provost for Administration and Chief of Staff in the Office of the Provost, at 847-491-2912 or