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In the Know: Quarters, dimes and semesters

By Omar Said and Keshav Tadimeti

May 2, 2019 2:38 p.m.

Quarters or semesters? The age-old debate has once again made its way on campus, this time thanks to Chancellor Gene Block. This week on “In the Know,” assistant Opinion editor Omar Said talks to Opinion editor Keshav Tadimeti about why this year’s iteration of the debate came about, and what it tells us about Block, UCLA and the future of education in Los Angeles.

Omar Said: From the Daily Bruin, this is “In the Know.” I’m Omar Said. This week, we take a look at the schedule that dictates our very lives as UCLA students: the quarter system.

The quarter system is among UCLA’s most polarizing issues. Rather than spacing their academic school years into semesters, as most universities do, UCLA and the other UCs, excluding UC Berkeley and UC Merced, have opted to use the quarter system – a system that UCLA’s chancellor, Gene Block, recently told the Daily Bruin Editorial Board he was open to changing. I have with me today Keshav Tadimeti, the Daily Bruin’s Opinion editor and a standing member of the editorial board.

So Keshav, how did this happen?

Keshav Tadimeti: So it kind of happened in a way that none of us really expected. This conversation usually comes up seasonally, but this time it came up from an administrator, which typically it doesn’t. So, back on March 11, the Daily Bruin Editorial Board met with Chancellor Block. The board meets quarterly with the chancellor for an hour to ask him about important issues on campus. And in this meeting, we didn’t have anything about the quarter system or the semester system on the docket – I was actually, in fact, questioning the chancellor about the state of mental health resources on campus and what UCLA was doing to address its counseling crisis.

Specifically, I was asking the chancellor about UCLA’s commitment to addressing things like the huge student demand for mental health resources, how the Counseling and Psychological Services center is understaffed, doesn’t have adequate space to house enough counselors to help students.

Chancellor Block, as most administrators, was sort of politely fighting back, talking about new strategies the university needed to do and how it was committed and whatnot, and he was talking, you know, about how one-on-one counseling, in his eyes, isn’t a sustainable solution for addressing mental health needs, and that counselors and universities would need to employ things like artificial intelligence to, you know, adapt to the growing demand for mental health resources. He brought up how the university owes each student the ability to seek out mental health treatment.

And then, he leaned back, and almost out of nowhere, he said it: UCLA should leave the quarter system because it’s a failed system.

Gene Block: I think there’s ways of limiting stress where we can, and I urge you all to support changing to semesters, by the way, if you want to limit stress. Keep that in mind, we need a lot of support for changing to semesters, but I am quite serious about it. There are ways of reducing stress and I think changing the changing our schedule could be very helpful. That’s my belief.

OS: So why is it what he just said is so important?

KT: The quarter system versus semester system debate has sort of been rehashed a lot. It happens nearly every time a student decides to choose between going to UC Berkeley versus UCLA. I’m not sure if it necessarily happens when you’re choosing between UC Merced and UCLA, but you know, don’t want to pound on UC Merced – sorry all you Merced people.

It happens every time when students are upset about finals week coming up just a few days after their instruction. It happens on the UCLA Memes for Sick AF Tweens page. Students are obviously very riled up about this.

And the arguments are pretty predictable at this point. One side is saying that 10 weeks are too short, that it’s not enough for classes to go in depth into the subject matter. That it rushes professors and it causes a lot of undue stress to students. They argue that if you give students 15 weeks, they would have more time to digest the course material and also get the added benefit of a dead week – or a week where there are no classes before the final exam, which is what Berkeley has.

People on the other side argue that the quarter system allows students who don’t like the courses they’re taking to get over them in 10 weeks, instead of stewing for 15. It also allows for students who don’t know what their field of study they want to pursue, what that is, it allows them to take basically 12 courses each year, minus in the summer, compared to eight in the semester system. Those are four extra classes that can help determine determine whether you want to pursue computer science versus – I don’t know – music or something.

OS: And what kind of reasons did Chancellor Block offer for the transition to the semester system?

KT: So he talked about how the stress that students face is largely a “west coast phenomenon,” and how it’s a different way of teaching and learning, and how it’s basically this wonderful solution that’s going to ease up the stress that students face. He said that students face, you know, almost something like midterms around every corner and how that helps rack up stress.

GB: You know, I think we should offer every student the opportunity for the best possible experience here. And that means both educationally and in terms of social support, you know, psychological support. So I think, we have an obligation to provide as much as we possibly can, within limits of what we can demand that we have. So, you know, I don’t have the answer other than, obviously, we have an obligation we want students to productive, happy lives. And that involves more than just having good classroom experience. So I think we’re committed to do everything we can.

KT: It was obvious that he was been thinking about this for some time, since he used to teach at UCLA. He did during the recession and he did research into certain things like circadian rhythms. He knows this system from a faculty and researcher perspective, and obviously from an administrative one too. So the fact that he brought this up made it kind of clear that he’s been mulling over this for some time. But the thing is that he can only really propose this as a solution because faculty have to approve it. It was intriguing that he brought this up in a context that didn’t really necessitate it. This was a conversation about mental health resources on campus and about UCLA’s commitment to it. It seems like he’s been thinking about this institutionally, which it’s interesting – it gives you insight into what this aging chancellor of the top public university is thinking regarding campus issues.

OS: What kind of changes might UCLA students experience if we were to switch to the semester system?

KT: I mean, the first one of the things is that, obviously, it’ll be five weeks longer. Midterms probably wouldn’t happen every week, but that also means they’re more spaced out. And that means final exams would also be spaced out too, so you might be tested on content you may not even remember. That’s sort of just the tip of the iceberg.

You’ll see changes in terms of research opportunities, in terms of internships as well. A lot of companies and organizations tend to recruit for internships during around May or April time, and semester system schools tend to end earlier too. Berkeley ends, I believe, middle of May or end of May, and that means that quarter system students who end in the middle of June lose out on those opportunities or have to adjust their spring quarter schedules to get those jobs. And you might see more students being able to land those opportunities, more companies coming over because UCLA would have been on the semester system and probably also see differences in terms of the units. Each course would have to reevaluated, you might have some courses condensing into others, because you can go into more depth about something – you don’t need two quarters for something that only takes one semester.

OS: Of course, despite all these benefits to students, there’s a reason we’re not on the semester system – professors. Can you walk us through why it is that the quarter system works so well for professors?

KT: Basically, there’s a norm of what they call two-plus-one system, where professors teach for two quarters and they do research for one. And also the quarter system allows more flexibility for adjunct professors, or sort of non-traditional professors. I actually had a professor in my freshman year whose name is Carey Nachenberg. He teaches for only one quarter, winter quarter, of the year, and he works at Google for the other two quarters. So it allows for that kind of flexibility because 10 weeks is an easier ask from employers or from researchers than fifteen weeks is.

Ten weeks also means that you don’t have huge breaks in between your courses. You can imagine that in sort of the spring semester, or second semester of semester system schools, you have spring break in between. That’s a week in between your classes. You don’t really experience that in the quarter system. At best, you experience maybe about three days for Thanksgiving break in fall quarter. And these breaks obviously disrupt instruction, so you can see where like 10 weeks can be seen as sort of like a healthy balance between enough time for teaching but also no need for breaks.

And these are also a lot of the concerns that faculty brought up 2003, which was the last time they voted on whether to switch to the semester system. In fact, UCLA Newsroom, there’s an opinion column published Feb. 11, 2003, titled “Why Returning to Semesters is a Bad Idea” and it starts out saying that this was actually the sixth time in 30 years UCLA considered switching to the semester system, so this debate has been really really really longrunning. And a lot of the issues brought up were that students don’t have time to explore different majors, that faculty like doing research and that they want to go on sabbaticals and what not, and the quarter system lends itself to that.

There’s also the thing that it costs a lot of money to switch to the semester system because courses need to be reevaluated, you probably need to get re-accredited as a university, you’d have to change the calendar, you imagine working big time with the registrar’s office. Faculty don’t like change, institutions don’t like change, so it’s kind of clear why there would be sort of a lot of backlash against this.

OS: Does it really matter that faculty are against this proposal though? As chancellor, can’t Gene Block just do it himself?

KT: That’s not how universities work. Basically, they operate on a system that’s called shared governance. Universities sort of like to pride themselves on intellectual independence – that you take everybody’s viewpoints into account before you make a decision, because we’re all rational, intellectual beings is the assumption. And so how it works is that you have an administration, you allow faculty to determine academic policy and administrators typically handle things like staff employment or student affairs. And so what you have at UCLA is a system where you have the administrative offices in Murphy Hall, where the chancellor may sit at the top, but what really controls academic policy is a body called the Academic Senate. It’s a body of senior faculty who determine majors and minor requirements. Sometimes they determine things like when the university can pause instruction during an emergency – they control almost everything about academic policy. So it’s not just Gene Block is sort of passionate about switching to the semester system – it’s that faculty would have to sign on to this and vote, and it’s been voted on several times and shot down each time.

GB: You know, it’d have to take over several years because faculty would have to prepare for it, obviously, and it’s a challenge. I think Cal State is doing it. I think by a certain time I’ve heard I think they’ve actually by fiat I think they’re going to be changing all their schools to semesters. But I’m really quite serious, I think that semesters offer advantage to building reading days before exams to lower stress levels, you’re not taking midterms every time you turn around. It’s a different way to teach – it’s a different way to learn. The quarter system, in my view, is a failed system. I mean, most schools have moved away from it. It’s really mostly a West Coast phenomenon now, and time to change.

OS: If the quarter system is so great, then why have other universities, like the Cal States, which recently switched off the quarter system, switched to the semester system?

KT: So according to an EdSource article published in 2016, a couple of the Cal State campuses were joining the semester system. They were on the quarter system. I believe it was Cal State Los Angeles was considering switching to the semester system, and in the article it said that San Luis Obispo was also considering switching to the semester system. Cal Poly Pomona and Cal State East Bay were set to convert in 2018, and San Bernardino and San Luis Obispo later – not too sure about whether those other campuses have switched.

But one of the things that was brought up was the sort of cost associated with the quarter system. When you do class registration, you have to make sure MyUCLA is running, you have to coordinate with many different departments, pay for registrars and course cataloging and stuff. And that happens three times for quarter systems, whereas it happens only twice for semesters. There’s also a lot of logistical things involved. The departments have to make sure course offerings are there, they have to deal with more appointments, put on more workshops – so quarter system is sort of a three-peat when the semester system only happens twice and that can seem appealing to universities that are looking to cut costs and also compete against other universities.

The quarter system does have a bad rap of being very rigorous and the reasons for maybe switching to the semester system is students wouldn’t choose between UCLA and a private university, or UCLA and UC Berkeley, just purely based on education system but rather on the merits of it. And especially now that UCLA has raised more than $4.2 billion in philanthropy as part of its Centennial Campaign, it’s really looking to bring in more students. Applications to UCLA – the number of them dipped this year compared to in previous years. The quarter system does show signs of cracking. Obviously, all the things being considered, there are a lot of other factors, but one of the things to consider really is the institutional costs associated with running a quarter system.

The Cal States probably shifted to be more uniform, because they have 17 campuses, many of which operate on a semester system. The University of California, on the other hand, has 10 campuses – nine undergraduate campuses – two of which operate on the quarter system. And so you can see where just to be uniform with the other UCs, the majority of other UCs, UCLA might be more inclined to stay on the quarter system, and also Berkeley does its own thing, so we can’t look at it as much of a standard.

OS: So what do you think? Is UCLA better off siding with faculty on this one, or should it move to the semester system to try and help students?

KT: I think a big thing that’s not really considered is the immediate aftermath of switching. There’ve been a couple of studies about how switching from the quarter system to the semester system immediately affects things like first-year GPAs, graduation rates and whatnot because people are probably in that immediate space where they have to adjust from a quarter system to a semester system. And one of the things to consider is that your first year at university is probably not going to be your best. Many people who are straight-A students in high school come to UCLA or these competitive universities and basically have a wakeup call, where they realize that the guardrails are off – that college is sort of you fend for yourself. I have a bit of apprehension to think that I would have done better at UCLA, at least my first year in a semester, and these considerations are something UCLA has to take into account because there are going to be a couple classes of students who are going to be collateral damage in this shift. And it’s not going to happen overnight – there’s going to be a lot of institutional inertia.

But I do think that semester system schools offer more benefits to students. And while the quarter system is fast-paced, for me specifically as a computer science student, a quarter system wasn’t really that great for educational purposes. By the time I figured out what was going on, I already had final exams. And especially for computer science classes that are very much project heavy, and you have to give a lot of theoretical background to backup whatever you’re teaching, it’s just not enough time to learn. Just the fact that as engineers, many of us have a lot of requirements that the department doesn’t really give us a lot of classes that cover the same subject, it’s that topic and that’s it. And that really makes departments and majors like computer science or engineering sort of a scattershot. You just get a sneak peak at some kind of topics and you have to pursue a masters degree to really go into depth, whereas I have friends who go to other universities that learn a lot of the mathematical backing behind things, and that makes them more competitive candidates for internships and what not.

Personally, I would say switch to the semester system, but I wouldn’t want to be any one of the students who’s in the immediate aftermath of that switch.

GB: In terms of what we owe students, we owe students with the best possible environment and I think that probably the semester system could provide a better environment.

OS: That’s all for this week. We’ll be here again in two weeks with a new episode of In the Know, looking at yet another issue here at UCLA. Have any ideas for topics In the Know should cover? Send them to [email protected]

From the Daily Bruin, I’m Omar Said. This is “In the Know.”

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Omar Said | Alumnus
Said was an assistant Opinion editor from 2018-2019. He previously contributed as an opinion columnist for the section and wrote about issues surrounding diversity and student life. He also managed the Daily Bruin's various podcasts.
Said was an assistant Opinion editor from 2018-2019. He previously contributed as an opinion columnist for the section and wrote about issues surrounding diversity and student life. He also managed the Daily Bruin's various podcasts.
Keshav Tadimeti | Alumnus
Tadimeti was the Daily Bruin's Opinion editor from 2017-2019 and an assistant Opinion editor in the 2016-2017 school year. He tends to write about issues pertaining to the higher education, state politics and the administration, and blogs occasionally about computer science. Tadimeti was also the executive producer of the "No Offense, But" and "In the Know" Daily Bruin Opinion podcasts.
Tadimeti was the Daily Bruin's Opinion editor from 2017-2019 and an assistant Opinion editor in the 2016-2017 school year. He tends to write about issues pertaining to the higher education, state politics and the administration, and blogs occasionally about computer science. Tadimeti was also the executive producer of the "No Offense, But" and "In the Know" Daily Bruin Opinion podcasts.
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