The Quad: The long, convoluted history that entrenches the quarter system at UCLA
This week, thousands of UCLA students will finally receive the degrees they’ve been working years toward – just about a month after their counterparts at schools such as UC Berkeley and the University of Southern California, both of which utilize the semester system.
A whirlwind of cliched phrases often pops up in debates surrounding the quarter system – it doesn’t take much more than a quick search on the Daily Bruin website for the phrase “quarter system” for curious readers to come across language referring to the “ever-present stress that is the quarter system” or “the dreaded 10-week sprint.” All of the negativity surrounding the quarter system raises the question of why UCLA operates under the quarter system in the first place.
The answer is just as convoluted as one might think. Ultimately it seems like it all boils down to the fact that the quarter system has become so ingrained in the UCLA community that it would be too difficult to change.
Interestingly enough, every school in the University of California system followed the semester calendar up until the mid-1960s, according to the University of California History Digital Archives. In 1965, however, the UC system rewrote its curriculum to operate under the quarter system beginning the following year.
UCLA’s first quarter began on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 1966, according to an article published in the Daily Bruin. Franklin Rolfe, the then-dean of the College of Letters and Sciences, justified the switch, saying it would allow students and instructors more room for academic experimentation and independent study.
However, the article also pointed out a couple of problems that the switch would bring about, the most basic of which was the fact that everything that had to be done twice a year – enrollment for instance – now had to be done three times a year instead.
UC Berkeley voted to return to the semester system in 1976 to promote year-round operation of classes. Then-UC President David Saxon, however, vetoed the movement in order to keep all UC schools on the same schedule. It wasn’t until 1983 that Berkeley officially returned to the semester schedule after an overwhelming vote of support.
UCLA has a recurring habit of almost returning to the semester system. As early as five years after the institution of the quarter system, a vote showed a 61 percent preference for the semester schedule. However, the results were deemed inconclusive, as voters who preferred the switch did not fully agree on how to best implement it.
The concept of switching back to the semester system has been officially discussed six times since the inception of the quarter system, not counting the endless grumbles among the student body. Pat Turner, dean of the UCLA College and dean vice provost of UCLA’s Division of Undergraduate Education, explained the hypothetical commotion that reverting to semesters would entail.
Moving to the semester system would not just be a simple shift of the calendar, she said. She added that a proposal must receive the full endorsement of ASUCLA, the Academic Senate and the central administration of the university. Because it has been more than 15 years since the last legitimate proposal, the university would be cautious pursuing such a dramatic change, Turner said.
The greatest challenge of switching to the semester system would be restructuring the curriculum of every academic department, she said.
“Virtually every department would have to redesign their major,” she said. “Every aspect of the infrastructure of the university right now is scheduled around doing things three times.”
The primary complaint against the quarter system is how it makes things harder for students searching for summer internships, Turner said. Because schools like UC Berkeley and UC Merced finish earlier, they tend to have a leg up in the process, she added.
“It’s one of the trade-offs. There are pros and cons to the semester system and pros and cons to the quarter system,” Turner said. “I suspect from time to time people will see the pros of the semester system and want to have those conversations at UCLA and see if it’s time.”
The most recent attempt at returning to the semester system began in 2002. Proponents justified the shift by noting that the University of Minnesota successfully made a similar calendar shift in 1999, after 86 years of operating under the quarter system. As we all know, the proposal ultimately failed. Only 20 percent of faculty voted to shift to the semester system.
Outside of its undergraduate programs, a few of UCLA’s professional schools have chosen to revert to the semester system. In 1978, UCLA’s school of law changed their schedule, and in 1987, UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine changed theirs as well. The shifts likely occurred to mimic peer schools as calendrical symmetry is more important at higher levels of academia, Turner said.
There’s only one school in the entire UC system that has never operated under the quarter system: UC Merced. Brenda Ortiz, a senior public information representative for the school, said in an email statement that the school’s administration ultimately decided on the semester system because it makes the transition into college easier for first-year and transfer students, who are usually accustomed to the semester system. Also unlike UCLA, Ortiz said the UC Merced faculty has never actually considered switching calendars.
At the end of the day, it seems like the quarter system is here to stay at UCLA. While the debate will continue to rage on, with students constantly lamenting the fact that their peers at other schools seem to be living the good life, the quarter system has been in place here for about five decades and probably won’t be leaving us any time soon.