Board of trustees could make final decision in December on whether or not to abandon current quarter system
If Eastern Washington University’s debate about moving from quarters to semester systems were scored like a baseball game, the outcome would be obvious: Quarters 2, Semesters 1.
Representatives from Eastern’s faculty organization and the associated students presented information against a change to the university’s board of trustees at a town hall meeting last Friday while administration officials offered results from research lobbying for the move. The administration’s report estimates the cost of the move at over $8.4 million, although it was noted other institutions had done it for less than $4 million.
“My sense is it would cost less than that,” EWU President Dr. Rodolfo Arévalo said. “How much less, I can’t tell you. We would have to go back and scrub the data.”
The students’ presentation revolved around an online survey conducted in late October, the results of which ASB Legislative Liaison E.B. Vodde summed up in a PowerPoint slide titled “It ain’t broke.” Of the 2,400 respondents to the specific question, 80.75 percent said they wished to remain on the quarter system, with the rest casting votes either for semesters or no preference.
“We’ve not seen involvement like this since we sent them all to Macklemore last summer,” Vodde said in comparing the survey to the Seattle-based hip-hop singer’s free appearance at Reese Court May 30.
ASB Director of Elections Samuel Adams told the board they went about educating students in several ways, including a direct email about the subject as well as providing access to other online materials. Of the 2,400 respondents, 86 percent said they felt they were informed about the quarters to semesters issue.
The online survey also listed options for students to explain the benefits to them of either quarters or semesters. Those picking quarters felt the system was less disruptive of the academic process, provided greater variety of classes, fit in better with work schedules – including summer jobs – and presented better access to financial aid.
Those preferring semesters also cited a better variety of classes as a reason for the selection as well as providing more time to catch up if a student fell behind in coursework.
One question that stood out was the one asking students if they would transfer to another university should Eastern switch to semesters. Of the 2,389 who answered, 15 percent said it was not applicable while the rest answered yes.
“Students have spoken,” ASEWU President D.J. Jigre told the board. “They do not want to change.”
EWU Faculty Organization President Julia Smith said votes by the Academic Senate in 2010, 2011 and 2013 along with two faculty surveys have never produced higher than 35 percent support for the switch to semesters.
Smith said the best investment of time and energy was to make students’ academic situations better, something she acknowledged the quarters to semesters process has helped produce.
Smith said that after three years of research the university hasn’t been able to find any reports which show definitive benefits for the quarters to semesters move. Some have indicated no real improvements in graduations rates or student learning, and often rely on anecdotes and “gut feelings.”
“We need to be really careful about these gut feelings [that] there will be improvement,” Smith said. “The thing is, I can’t trust my gut and you can’t either.”
Smith also said there were no before and after studies done by institutions making the switch, and questioned why this was.
“We’ve got to assume no results were worth reporting,” she said.
In presenting the administration’s argument for the switch, Arévalo took issue with Smith’s assessment of before and after studies.
“It just means nobody’s done research on it,” he said.
Arévalo told the board the reason the university began looking at a conversion stemmed from concern by state legislators and community leaders over Eastern’s graduation and retention rates.
In searching for information, the university attempted to focus more on studies from institutions similar to Eastern.
Some of the benefits administration research uncovered were more calendar time in a given term to engage in active learning, work on classroom projects and adjusting to the rigors of university life. There were also better outside learning opportunities, earlier entrance to the job market for graduates as well as competition for summer jobs and “clearer pathways for college completion.”
“We didn’t look at one institution, we looked at a lot of institutions,” Arévalo said. “(Those who made the switch) there must be a reason, even though there isn’t a study.”
The board of trustees is scheduled to make a final decision at the Tuesday, Dec. 3 meeting.
John McCallum can be reached at email@example.com.