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John Harvard's Journal

Calendrical Coup?

November-December 2003

The curriculum may be remade, plans for Allston refined and implemented, but no monument to administrative accomplishment at Harvard would equal revision of the University's uncoordinated, seemingly quixotic academic calendars. Whether by tradition or from differences in programs, distinct starting dates for classes (from September 2 to September 15 this fall), exam schedules, and term breaks among the schools make it nearly impossible for students to cross-register for courses.

So an unassuming notice on page 2 of the September 25 University Gazette was of more than slight interest. "Calendar reform at Harvard," read the headline. The subtitle, "A message from the president, provost, and deans of the faculties," conveyed the forces arrayed. "The prospect of carefully considered calendar reform," the notice said, "holds promise to...promote closer connections among faculty and students across the University, in an era when excellent education and scholarship increasingly depend on learning... across traditional academic bounds."

And so the battle will be joined. Given that determining "Precisely what the calendar parameters should be, and what level of commonality is needed to produce the desired academic benefits, are questions warranting thorough deliberation and care," the task has been entrusted to no less a scholar than political scientist Sidney Verba, Pforzheimer University Professor—master of bureaucracy (he directs the Harvard University Library system) and of past battles royal (he chaired the last review of the College's Core curriculum). His committee includes the provost, senior faculty members from the schools (including members of the steering committee for the current College curriculum overhaul), and four students.

The result of this work will be "calendar guidelines" to improve opportunities for cross-enrollment. But collateral matters of moment may also be at stake: undergraduate exams before Chrismas, making for a real holiday break, and the timing of the annual Commencement extravaganza at year's end.