The week before Thanksgiving, and then the week before spring break, you'll find articles  in many a student newspaper about the confusion or unfairness of holding classes on the last day before a vacation. The articles almost always note a few holdout professors  who refuse to call off classes, and the reality that many students have come to expect vacation to start 24 (or 48) hours early and have planned accordingly.
At Pennsylvania State University this week, the Faculty Senate voted to take a stand for consistency -- and for holding classes as scheduled on the last days before breaks. While professors who cancel classes won't be tracked down by security, they will now be acting despite the "strong opposition" to a practice the Senate declared "professionally inappropriate" and "demoralizing" to those who do teach as scheduled.
Until Penn State's spring break, it will be hard to tell if behavior will change -- and there is some dispute over how widespread such cancellations have been in the past. But, prompted by President Graham Spanier, faculty and student leaders have now had a much more public discussion of the topic than is the norm, generally arriving on opposite sides of the issue.
Spanier said he raised the issue because he had heard informally from students about classes being called off the Friday before Thanksgiving. Penn State used to have a calendar that included classes at the start of Thanksgiving week, but opted to offer the entire week off. Given the change, which made it possible for everyone to get home for the holiday, Spanier said that the early vacation starts "didn't sit well with me." So he surveyed 30 students and found that half of them said that they had had at least one class called off the day before vacation.
So last month, Spanier raised the issue at a Faculty Senate meeting, and he said he was struck by the way many of those at the meeting were "upset that their colleagues" extended vacations. He said he was "impressed and pleased" that the senate followed up with the resolution this week.
Dennis Gouran, a professor of communication arts and sciences at Penn State, wrote the resolution that was adopted this week. He said that he thought Spanier's concern was appropriate and that because the issue this was "a faculty problem," it needed to be taken up by the Faculty Senate rather than waiting for an administrative policy.
Gouran acknowledged that there is no enforcement mechanism, but he said that he hoped the resolution would have an impact on professors when they are aware that their elected representatives have taken a stand. A 25-year veteran at Penn State, Gouran scoffed at the idea that professors have no choice but to follow student preferences on the issue. "I don't think it is modeling good behavior for a professor to say 'Does anyone plan to come on Friday?' and then to say 'Let's not meet,' " he said.
In his courses, Gouran said, there are penalties for missing too many sessions. As a result, he said, attendance doesn't drop much at all the day before vacation.
The vote for his resolution was 120-71, with some faculty members joining with many of the 25 student representatives in opposition to the measure. During the debate, student leaders suggested that the resolution might intrude on the autonomy of individual faculty members.
Samuel M. Loewner, chair of the student caucus, said he wasn't sure there was a problem that needed addressing. "We're not talking about any real data here," he said.
He said he would have no problem if faculty members want to hold class, and even if they want to schedule an assignment or test to raise the stakes for missing it. But he said that if professors don't want to hold classes, they shouldn't be discouraged. From a student perspective, he said, the 15 weeks per term add up to "very long semesters."
One issue Loewner wanted to stress, however, was that the target of the resolution wasn't students who skip classes, but professors who call them off. "The reason they thought this resolution was necessary was that faculty want to cancel class," he said.
On faculty senator who disagreed with the resolution was Larry Backer, a law professor. Via e-mail, he said that he agreed that classes should take place as scheduled. But he questioned the resolution's approach. Backer said he would have endorsed a resolution "reminding faculty of their obligations, fleshing out expectations and offering the good offices of the Senate and its leadership to help all faculty come closer to full attainment of the objectives identified."
He added: "But rather than take this approach, the Senate chose to play the role of the scold. In a resolution spiced with innuendo, veiled threats, suggestions of contract breach and allusions to an unidentified irresponsible faculty, the actual resolution squeaked out little more than a statement of the obvious -- that the Senate favored responsible (and condemned irresponsible) faculty conduct. I would have preferred that the Senate extend a helping hand in the project of maintaining an excellent faculty with a superior conduct reputation instead of using that hand to appear to slap the faces of those who support it."