The tragedy of a good idea

Good night, sweet plan.

There is a tradition of collegial governance at universities which says, more or less, that big decisions are not made by fiat, but are, rather, the product of a series of consultations where advice and input is sought, where compromises are made, and where, more or less, everyone feels like they’ve had a say. All this is generally good, since universities are complex and university faculty understand their disciplines and their students in ways that professional administrators and corporate governors cannot.

But it also means that every good idea has a thousand chances to get shot down. Committee after committee, procedure after procedure, vote after vote, someone, at some point, can find a way to take it out. Like baby turtles racing to the sea, even strong ideas can get picked off. Here is the story of one such idea.

A few years ago, the Teaching and Learning Committee at my university came up with a proposal: why don’t we have a study break in the fall? Students get a break in the spring, after all, and since many courses are single-semester courses, it doesn’t make sense to give a break in one semester and not the other. Plus, a fall break would help new students get back on their feet if they had become overwhelmed by the bigger workloads and higher expectations of university. Graduating students would get more time to prepare applications for their new programs, and professors would get extra time to prepare grant applications and the like.

In short, it was a no-brainer. Good for students, good for faculty, and no real cost to the institution.

Enter the consultations.

The first objection came from the administration which asked, fairly enough, where the extra days were to come from. After all, the fall term is typically bounded on one side by Labour Day and on the other by Christmas and when Labour Day is late in the year, there are a very limited number of days on which to offer classes. To make matters worse, our collective agreement with faculty mandates that the term begins the Monday after Labour Day, making the squeeze tighter still. Nevertheless, by nipping a bit around exam time and tucking the break around Thanksgiving weekend, something like a modest fall break could still be worked in.

Ah,  the administration said, but our fall term is really too short as it is. Rather than talking about a break, we should be talking about the whole fall semester, and, come to think of it, maybe we should be adding some days.

And so it was the that the matter was sent to another committee, Academic Committee, to try to work out a way to get a fall break while somehow taking the administration’s concerns into account. After nearly a full year of debate, Academic Committee finally worked out a plan by which everything could be accomodated. The term was lengthened slightly, a fall break was added around the observance of Remembrance Day, and there was still enough time for exams and grade submissions before Christmas. The new proposal came to Senate and it passed! Deck the halls!

Not so fast, said the administration,  surely the scheduling of the semester is a management issue, and not governed by Senate at all. So the proposal may have no force. Luckily, the university bylaws clearly stated that the fall schedule was, in fact, the purview of Academic Commtitee, so all’s well that end’s well.

But there was still one problem.

Because the proposal involved starting the term three days earlier — to about when most other local universities start their term — the proposal had to be approved by the faculty association.

And so after a long delay, the item finally appeared on the agenda at the association meeting where it was greeted with great suspicion. Some didn’t like the timing of the break (too late in the year), some said it was discriminatory against faculty who had kids (who supposedly needed that first week to get their little ones back to school), and others demanded to know why we should give them something and not get anything in return.

I responded that whatever date was chosen would have benefits and drawbacks, but that the Committee — including a student rep — thought the later date was better. As for kids, apparently most other university faculty manage back to school in this way (not to mention every other employed person). As for giving up something, it was really just one single additional teaching day (because we started three days earlier but got two off at the break), and I didn’t really see how we were giving them anything. But if it came to that we were giving students a better experience and getting a smarter, better fall term to boot.

My responses were widely viewed as naive if not offensive and people quickly started walking out of the meeting. After a few more minutes of bickering, I was told that we had lost quorum and so we couldn’t vote on it anyway, and the matter would have to be considered at a subsequent meeting. It’s been a year since that meeting, and the union has not raised the matter again, so it is effectively dead.

In short, it took a couple of years for a beautiful idea to be born, raised through a promising youth, challenged by hardship, and finally killed. Not every good idea meets such an ignominious end, and many bad ones escape such a fate. Still the lesson here is clear. There is no idea so reasonable that it can’t be consulted to death.

In a sad epilogue, The Hour Hand notes that the fall term break is becoming increasingly common at other universities.

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