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October 19, 2012

Senate presentations, discussion focus on trimester initiative

The University Senate devoted its Oct. 15 meeting to a discussion of Purdue's trimester initiative and presentations on its history, financial models and implications.

In his remarks, Senate chair J. Paul Robinson said the discussion grew out of a need for faculty evaluation of the initiative to identify its advantages and disadvantages. Holding the meeting as an open forum would allow for open dialogue and to be the start of future conversations.

"We need to look at every aspect of these sorts of change because the impact is very complex," he said. "We are not here to vote on anything – or make any decisions. We are here only to understand the implications of what the impact might be on major changes to a summer schedule that include moving to a full summer trimester. "

Under the trimester initiative, the University aims to increase student credit hours during the summer from 40,000 to more than 300,000. Part of Purdue's decadal funding plan, the trimester initiative is designed to enhance students' academic opportunities as well as help them move more quickly toward graduation.

When fully implemented, the initiative could mean $40 million in additional yearly revenue for the University. It also would make better use of classrooms, residence halls and other campus facilities during the summer months.

Senators heard presentations on the initiative, including a review of its history by acting President Tim Sands and a review of trimester and summer session financial models by Jim Almond, senior vice president for business services and assistant treasurer. Frank Dooley, associate vice provost of undergraduate academic affairs and professor of agricultural economics, and Ray DeCarlo, professor of electrical and computer engineering, also discussed issues and possible effects of growing the summer program and moving to trimesters.

Several senators sought clarification about the trimester initiative's effect on faculty contracts, compensation, curriculum and the academic calendar, which eventually would change from two 15-week semesters to three semesters with 13 instructional weeks each. In addition, questions concerning research support, recruitment and retention, student learning, financial aid, and scheduling of graduate student seminars and teaching assistant shifts were raised.

David Williams, Senate vice chair and professor of medical illustration, asked if other universities in the country currently use the trimester model successfully, and Kirk Alter, associate professor of building construction management technology, advocated for a transparent discussion informed by solid academic rigor.

According to Sands, about 60 universities in the United States have tried the model, and a number of institutions around the world have balanced trimesters. Sands said Purdue's planning process is a slow one to allow time for discussion and analysis, and he noted that changes in higher education over the past 10-20 years and the need for a global perspective necessitate that Purdue keep looking forward.

Joe Rust, president of Purdue Student Government, shared student feedback, including support for a system that could help those in double majors graduate more quickly. Other students wanted to make sure the system remained flexible so they could follow a traditional academic year or switch their schedule so they could participate in an internship, study abroad or cooperative program.

Sands stressed that the primary advantage of trimesters is the flexibility it provides for students.

"The advantage of having more flexibility over the summer is that students have more control over when they go through," he said. "They aren’t set back as much by missing a cycle or not being able to take a required course because they take an internship in the fall or spring. That really is where I think the advantage is in the trimester system."

Eckhard Groll, director of the Office of Professional Practice and professor of mechanical engineering, said building up of summer offerings would help students enrolled in the office's cooperative education program. Students in the program alternate between work and academic sessions on a fall-spring-summer basis.

"Our summer counts as an academic session, and our students who are not at work sessions during the summer are on campus and taking classes," he said. "The offerings of summer classes have been reduced over the years, and we have struggled to find classes for them. We certainly would be happy to see more course offerings during the summer to accommodate these students."

Several senators asked if Purdue would abandon plans for a balanced trimester if there were a lack of buy-in or if conditions were not favorable for the transition.

Sands said that the same thought process discussed at the balanced trimester announcement in January remained in place now: The academic calendar would not be altered until summer credit hours can be built up to 35 percent of the fall. Now, the summer stands at 7 percent of the fall.

"One of the reasons we have such a long lead time is to see if we can make this a success and not repeat the mistakes that other universities have made in developing a balanced trimester," Sands said. "One thing I can say from evidence out there is doing it too quickly and not thinking ahead about all the implications of such a change will probably lead to failure. We need to study and learn from the ones who are doing this well."

Faculty may send questions, opinions or evaluations to Robinson at wombat@purdue.edu for use in future discussions of the trimester plan.

Senate presentations and documents are available at https://www.purdue.edu/senate/meetings.cfm. A video of the meeting is posted to the Purdue YouTube channel at http://youtu.be/rTmlshiW0I8.