While the online away messages of students at other universities last Monday — Labor Day — may have read “At the beach,” or “Barbecuing in the courtyard,” the messages of some Yale students read “In class.”
Students at some of the University’s peer institutions enjoy days off for federal holidays like Labor Day, President’s Day and Columbus Day, but traditionally Yalies have trekked to class — the University remains in session even though the rest of the nation is closed for business. But Dean of Administrative Affairs John Meeske, a member of Yale’s Calendar Committee, said Yale students benefit from a longer Thanksgiving break and spring recess than other universities. Furthermore, he said, students and faculty prefer this to having certain Mondays off, which, if practiced, could interrupt the academic continuity of the semester.
Yale President Richard Levin said the University’s academic calendar is an example of a tradition that works successfully.
“This has been a long-standing policy here,” Levin said. “It’s a matter of keeping balance and rhythm in the academic calendar. It seems simpler to have complete weeks and longer vacations [than several federal holidays off].”
In 2001, student pressure led to the University closing campus for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in January. To make up for this day, the calendar committee devised a “complicated” system which included having Monday classes meet on Friday and adding an extra day of class before reading period, Meeske said.
He said the calendar committee, which is made up of administrators and students, understands that scheduling is “all about compromise.”
“I’ve never seen a perfect calendar,” Meeske said. “You can’t please everyone but you have to please the majority.”
In the past, the committee has toyed with awarding Mondays off by taking vacation days from Thanksgiving break or spring recess, said Martha Highsmith, deputy secretary and member of the Calendar Committee. But in the end, for practicality reasons and student preference, the committee always returned to its original plan, she said.
“The full week off at Thanksgiving is pretty well a tradition, so that limits the number of days that we can be taking out of a semester,” Highsmith said. “You could take these [spring and Thanksgiving break] days out and sprinkle them somewhere else, but when we’ve sat down to work on the calendar people have not been willing to do that.”
Nate Wenstrup ’06 said having a longer break at Thanksgiving and during the spring is an example of “the sum [being] greater than the parts.” While a Monday off is not a significant amount of time to feel like a vacation, he said, combining these potential Mondays off into an extra week of vacation is the preferred option for students.
“Having a week off allows you to not spend all the time traveling, or to take a vacation to somewhere fun,” he said.
The University would be able to find a system to have the federal holidays off, Meeske said, but the repercussions of doing this outweigh the benefits. Taking away Monday classes and replacing them later in the semester — the policy the University practices for Martin Luther King, Jr., Day — is not ideal and is especially difficult for labs that have elaborate set-ups, he said.
In the early 1980s the University experimented by closing school on Labor Day, but this “was not a great way to begin a term,” Meeske said.
“It was disruptive to getting things going and to shopping period,” he said.
University historian and professor emeritus Gaddis Smith said the University changed the schedule for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day because of political reasons and that administrators would not alter the schedule for less controversial holidays.
“I think [Martin Luther King, Jr., Day] had a strong ideological impetus to it,” Smith said. “Labor Day does not have as much of an ideological fizz to it.”
Meeske said the University usually follows a basic formula every year. Each term is 13 weeks long with about one week for reading period and about one week for final exams.
The Yale calendar has been in its current state since the early 1970s, Smith said. Before this time, Yale’s calendar was very similar to Harvard’s — starting and ending later with first semester exams occurring after Christmas. But even in the calendar’s original state, the University did not observe federal holidays, Smith said, recalling the past administration of exams on Memorial Day.