On Wednesday, the Drake University faculty senate considered the potential impact of the provost’s office’s proposal to replace January Term with a May Term.
“There was a little less trepidation from the people who are arguing against it, and there was a little less excitement from the people who are arguing for it than maybe I expected,” Faculty Senate President Matthew Zwier said. “And that’s actually again a good thing, because it means that we’re not going to rush into something that’s not wise. We’re going to have a solid discussion about this.”
In an interview and at the faculty senate meeting, Provost Sue Mattison outlined possible advantages of switching to May Term, including adapting to COVID-19, expanding opportunities for outdoor work, and allowing first-year students to take travel seminars. She said the proposal would also allow all students to start summer work sooner and address financial planning problems related to students who take 18 credits in the spring semester and a J-Term course.
“And as someone who’s taught many J-Terms, I personally think I would prefer going spring term to May Term in terms of workload, just because that turnaround between J-Term and spring is just overwhelming,” Drake Registrar Jennifer Tran-Johnson said in an interview.
Mattison, who is also an epidemiologist, also said that viral transmission would be decreased during some travel seminars in May Term because students could spend more time outside.
“If COVID-19 follows a similar cyclic pattern, similar to influenza where in the winter months the case numbers increase, which may or may not be the case,” Mattison said in the interview. “Again, we don’t know everything about COVID. But if it does follow that pattern, as well as students traveling over winter break and then coming back, it would hopefully reduce the number of positive cases on campus.”
At the meeting, faculty members raised points about how this choice would affect students’ mental health in the winter months, the ability to hold field courses during the spring and the quick transition from J-Term to spring semester. Professor Rachel Paine Caufield noted that switching to May Term would prevent her J-Term class from attending the presidential inauguration or the swearing-in of a new Congress.
Amber Guzzo, Drake’s student senator for academic affairs, raised concerns about May Term’s potential impact on student burnout at the end of the semester. She also brought up the possibility that if students have the opportunity, they may choose not to attend May Term so they can end their lease early to save money on rent.
Guzzo said that she is working with other student senators to set up a forum and potentially a survey to get student feedback on the May Term proposal.
“I have some concerns,” Guzzo said. “But the problem is, you know, I’m only one person, so I want to hear way more students’ [opinions] on this before I make my final opinion, because I personally loved J-Term, but maybe some students would appreciate the warmer weather.”
Zwier set the table for the discussion with three options: keeping J-Term as is, moving it to May or retaining it for some number of years before making the transition. The faculty senate did not vote on Wednesday, and the discussion will continue.
Tran-Johnson said she thinks that starting May Term next year could still be on the table; however, it would be difficult because students’ financial aid packages would have to be modified if the dates of the spring semester change. During the meeting, Tran-Johnson explained two possible ways that Drake could alter the 2023-2024 academic calendar to accommodate a May Term.
Under the first option, spring semester would start three weeks early, on Jan. 8, and end on April 26 with commencement on April 28. May Term would run from April 29 to May 17, and summer classes would start on May 20. The second option is essentially the same as the first, except the above dates occur approximately a week later.
Tran-Johnson said the first option would sometimes overlap between the Drake Relays and finals week, which “makes it not as attractive for me.” This would also make it more difficult to utilize the Knapp Center and Bell Center for commencement activities, she said. The second option wouldn’t have the same overlap, but would still be close to Relays.
“If I was a betting person, I would say more people will be inclined to want to go with option two, solely because of — you know, that kind of Relays overlap is not super attractive,” Tran-Johnson said. “And it gives still a decent break between the fall and the spring semester because I know that was a concern faculty had brought up for those that don’t teach J-Term.”
According to Mattison, there are “hundreds of students who take three credits in J-Term and 18 credits in the semester,” which is the maximum credit load before students are charged an overload fee.
“But because of the glitch in the system, they have not been [charged] up to this point,” Mattison said. “So now that it’s been discovered and they’re addressing it, that’s going to be an issue. That’s going to be a real issue.”
If Drake moves J-Term to May, Mattison said, it won’t be part of spring semester, allowing these students to avoid that fee.
“Some of these details like budgeting, what does it mean for student credit load? Those were not fully rounded out when J-Term was first launched,” Zwier said in an interview. “And so the university could say, well, we’re just going to suddenly start charging everyone … It speaks a lot to how much the university cares about everyone involved that they’re not just doing that because the administrative side of the university, they have that power. They could just say, ‘Okay, starting this year, we’re no longer automatically waiving those overload fees. We’re just going to start charging them.’ ”
According to Zwier, there are also logistical issues that factor into this decision, such as when different funding sources distribute funds.
“There’s a financial difficulty maintaining J-Term exactly as it currently is. There’s a logistical difficulty making it its own academic term,” Zwier said. “And it’s enough of a logistical difficulty that with some of these other questions, like, what is COVID going to look like year over year? What are the impacts on student and faculty mental health? Those are enough to have us asking the question, well what if we did it this other way?”