University of Montana

Students cross the Oval at the University of Montana.

A long winter break offers some students and faculty the chance to take a trip to Vietnam or do research.

At the University of Montana, though, the break can last up to seven weeks, and Sarah Smith said students on campus have talked about the long stint between semesters.

"Some of the things that we've heard from students is that six weeks is too long to kind of sit idly, but not enough time to get a job, to do anything constructive," said Smith, a senator with the Associated Students of the University of Montana.

This week, UM Provost Perry Brown requested feedback from the campus community on cutting winter break from roughly six weeks to four weeks, depending on the calendar year. (See sidebar for a possible scenario in 2016 and 2017.) 

Brown presented an initial proposal to the Faculty Senate last month based on input from forums in the fall, and he plans to discuss the idea with the Staff Senate and ASUM on Wednesday, March 11.

The draft winter break proposal requests comments through March 27, and it includes the following changes:

• Move the start of spring semester one week earlier than it is now.

• "Adjust the starting date of fall semester classes each year to ensure that there is only one full week before December 25."

• Ensure UM and MSU commencement ceremonies are not on the same day.

• In the proposed scenario, winter break would last four weeks. Currently, the break is as short as 5 1/2 weeks and as long as seven, according to UM officials.

"UM currently has one of the longest periods in the nation between the end of fall semester exams and the beginning of spring semester classes," read the provost's proposal.

"Some students, parents, faculty and system administrators have raised issues regarding the length of the break, with its effects on student performance and retention, cost and correspondence to breaks throughout Montana and the nation."

On Wednesday, Brown said the cost relates to courses UM offers in the winter session. Currently, he said, the proposal maintains classes in the winter session, which are tied to credits in the spring semester.

The winter session allows students to complete an additional three credits without paying extra tuition. The downside is some courses cost UM money, Brown said.

"If you're paying to have the course offered, but you're getting no revenue, then it's a losing proposition," he said.

The cost varies year to year depending on the courses and who is offering them, he said.

Brown said once the Office of the Provost receives comments, it will refine the proposal as needed. He anticipates UM will have a good idea of its direction in April and, ultimately, President Royce Engstrom will sign off on any change.

***

Stephen Lodmell, chairman of the Faculty Senate, said the change has both pros and cons. Once the provost presents a more detailed plan, he said, the Faculty Senate likely will take a position.

"When the provost pitched it to the faculty, there wasn't much vocal dissent, but there was concern," Lodmell said.

In a long winter break, he said, some students and instructors take full advantage of the time off and "do something really special, maybe through UM."

"The people it would hit the hardest, we think, are that portion of students or faculty members who do something really extraordinary over the winter session," Lodmell said.

However, he said the students who do so represent just a small portion of the campus, an estimated 10 percent of the enrollment at most.

Faculty also make use of the long break to do research and write manuscripts and lab applications, he said. In fact, some professors refer to the downtime between semesters as "research season."

"We certainly make full use of that time, so shortening it? It's not something that we were pining away for," Lodmell said.

On the other hand, he said, he himself can easily do research in May instead if UM gets out a week earlier. He also believes letting students out early in the spring would give graduates a leg up in employment.

"There's a reasonable and fairly compelling argument that students graduating or finishing for the summer from UM are at an employment disadvantage because our graduation date is later than any place in the state, and I've heard that it's later than any other place in the Northwest," Lodmell said.

Smith took her first winter session course this past break, and she enjoyed it. It allowed the single parent and full-time student more time this spring to volunteer as a senator and fit in other extracurricular activities.

She herself likes to have six weeks off, and she has mixed feelings about a condensed winter session.

"The time off is great, and if you're taking a winter session course, it goes by very quickly," Smith said.

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Reporter for the Missoulian