Our University: Summertime Revisited

As we move past the shortest day of the year, my thoughts turn to the eventual return of languid summer days. This column about how universities could make better use of their facilities and faculty during the summer months first ran in April of 2010.  Starting the New Year with the recognition that universities are changing, if only at the margins, is a worthwhile reflection.  While many within the walls of the academy decry tradition the strength of it on university campuses is powerful testimony to how central it is.

Everywhere, authority and tradition have to justify themselves in the face of questions.
Gustav Heinemann


Not one stone will remain unturned in a nationwide effort to reduce operating costs, tuition and fees over the next few years for all public and private universities. American ingenuity coupled with a deep, abiding pragmatism suggests this crisis of cost will have an economizing impact on universities.

Institutions that provide excellence with high efficiency will serve most best.

Whatever your perspective, and acknowledging the reprehensible crassness of the sentiment given the number of people adversely affected by the present economy, Rahm Emmanuel’s insensitive characterization is real, “It is a shame to waste a good crisis.” Knute Rockne voiced the same idea uncoupled from glib political expediency, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” However, the grandfather of the idea is Socrates when in Book Two of Plato’s Republic, he muses that “…necessity, who is the mother of our invention.”

I won’t argue university mission here, or the value of the university to a free society or a working democracy, or the importance of excellent professors and students in achieving mission and supporting the forward progress of our nation. You can go to the website http://walterwendler.com/. and read reflections on these concepts.

Operational horse sense is the target of this thought.

Can you imagine an organization with a world changing mission essentially shutting down for three months a year in the 21st century, so that the students can help on the family farm, or more contemporarily, take vacations? I know, many students work during the summer to pay for college. They still could.

This month, (almost two years ago now) the University of California is continuing to review the idea of three-year bachelor degrees. A dozen other university systems are also considering changes to the calendar. Some institutions already offer “microwave” matriculations.

Naysayers suggest these changes are not going to produce enough impact to solve the current crisis. Surely this is true, but growth and adaptation to current circumstances will make a university more able to change in response to as yet unknown future conditions. Positive adaptability is a learned trait in any enterprise.

Universities must change to more efficiently serve students, and simultaneously seek higher levels of quality. Excellence and efficiency are not mutually exclusive constructs.

A number of years ago, I participated in a group of faculty that looked at treating the summer as a full third semester to reduce time to graduation. There are many benefits to operating continuously, and some very positive possibilities. For example, the efficiency of cooling, lighting, and cleaning buildings in the summer for a greater number of faculty and students is clear.

More intriguing issues exist. The possibility of a professor teaching a full load of courses in the summer and taking a reflective respite in the fall or spring semester as a trade-off provides longer periods for focused research and scholarly work, and may help with hectic family life, working partners, and child care arrangements.

With a fuller palette of courses in the summertime students could make real progress towards their degrees, possibly finish in less than four years and get into the workforce or graduate school sooner. Many professors could benefit simultaneously.

Why not?

The impetus for our faculty group stalled amid concerns about collective bargaining issues, state law, and the momentous change in point-of-view that such a proposal would require.

Simple economics teaches us the lesson that nearly anything you buy is cheaper today than it will be tomorrow. A student who finishes early saves money on that precept alone.

Bob Dylan, not a conspicuous authority on higher education and its shifting environment, understood this notion when he twanged out the words mimicking fingernails on a blackboard, “For you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone, for the times, they are a changin’”.


4 thoughts on “Our University: Summertime Revisited

  1. Dear Dr. Wendler,

    I find your “Summertime Revisited” an interesting and frugal idea to continue university education full throttle year round, but… the proposal possibly overlooks a strategy change in the delivery mode, that is distance learning. As Plato is misquoted, “When the music changes the walls of the city shake” Taking this quote a face value, bricks and mortar will become a thing of the past. In the future the university will run full throttle year round… “According to an annual Sloan Survey of Online Learning at 2,500 colleges and universities, 29 percent of students took at least one course online in fall 2009, up from nearly 12 percent in fall 2003.” Faculty (whether we agree with it or not) should realize that the universities’ mission will be the same but the delivery (the automation of learning) will shake the city walls…let’s hope this will not be a Jericho!
    Professor Jon Daniel Davey Ph.D., A.I.A.
    *Plato”When modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the state always change with them.”

  2. Here I agree with you on the absurdity of closing SIUC down three months of the year. Many students rely on summer school to graduate and the current policy of reducing and axing offerings (even when class lists are full) is absolutely absurd. Europe never operates on a semester system and three year degrees are both effective and efficient there, So why not use the same system here and allow those of us who enjoy teaching in the summer to do so rather than compete for limited funding?

  3. DL is not real learning but the equivalent of Enron and junk bonds. The previous comment about the old system says it all. Let us not discard the values of a real university education for the latest gimmick.

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