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Editorial: Reform Princeton’s academic calendar

Earlier this month, almost 40 percent of Princeton undergraduates voted in an Undergraduate Student Government-sponsored referendum to “call on the faculty and administration to provide for a three-week winter recess during the 2015-16 academic year and future academic years.” Predictably, it passed, with over 96 percent of students voting in favor. This highlights an important issue with the way the University determines the start and end dates of winter recess: however, it also presents an opportunity to look at possible changes to Princeton’s academic calendar as a whole. Over the past three years, the Editorial Board has repeatedly called for various changes to the academic calendar, including making Thanksgiving break a full week and moving finals before winter recess. In light of the USG referendum and long-time student complaints about the University’s academic calendar, we believe that the University should always make winter recess at least three weeks long, and we renew our call for finals to be moved before winter break.

Currently, the Rules and Procedures of the Faculty of Princeton University state that Princeton’s winter recess will begin after classes end “on the Friday between December 12 and 18” and will conclude “on the Sunday between January 1 and 7.” As the University has stated, this means that variations in the Gregorian calendar will occasionally cause winter recess to be only 17 days, as has occurred for the 2015-2016 academic year. This poses several problems for students. First, students who live particularly far from campus or have more expensive travel costs are further limited in the amount of time they can spend with their families over the holidays. Second, it reduces the amount of time students have to truly get a break from classes and academic work before returning to campus for reading period and final exams. Lengthening winter recess next year and in future academic years has overwhelming support among students and would significantly benefit students, particularly those who live far from campus.

Princeton’s final exams have been after winter recess since the 1939-40 academic year, but despite all of our peer institutions changing their calendars in recent decades to conduct final exams before winter break, Princeton has resisted calls to do the same. When Harvard announced in 2007 that it would move its finals before winter break, Princeton investigated whether the University should make a similar change, but this effort failed because the University did not see a consensus among students on the issue, despite problems with the survey used to gauge support for moving final exams.

Moving Princeton's final exams before winter recess would benefit students in several ways. First, it would free students from having to study or do academic work over winter recess. This would have immense benefits, including giving students time to explore other interests, work on internship and job applications, spend more time with their families, participate in winter internships or other programs, and give seniors an extended break to focus on their theses without other academic work. Second, it would eliminate the problem of students forgetting material over winter recess. Finally, it would reduce the pace of our academic calendar by giving students a solid, four-week winter recess that would combine the normal break with intercession. By not dragging out the semester from September to the middle of January, the new calendar would allow students to go home for the holidays with their semester finished and behind them.

Though this change would require beginning the academic year earlier and other major changes to the structure of the calendar, any negative consequences of these changes would be outweighed by the benefits of having exams before winter break. While lengthening winter recess because of pre-recess exams might negatively affect some students, such as international students, who normally choose to remain on campus during the holidays, a longer break might make it more feasible for them to go home, and universities with as many, or more, international students across the country regularly have longer winter breaks without issue.

Princeton’s academic calendar, with its incredibly late start, post-break finals and shorter winter break, has drawn student complaints for decades. Though many faculty members and others on campus might feel attached to a calendar that has been a Princeton tradition since before the Second World War, Princeton was alone among its peers after 2007 in forcing students to take finals after winter break. The shortened winter break next year exacerbates the problems inherent in the structure of the University’s calendar, but it has served as a rallying point for student calls for change. Princeton needs to change its academic calendar, and continuing to ignore the issue is a disservice to students and the entire University community.

The Editorial Board is an independent body and decides its opinions separately from the regular staff and editors of the ‘Prince.’ The Board answers only to its chair, the opinion editor and the editor-in-chief.