Learning to Adapt

2 March 2022
By Alison Byerly
President Alison Byerly

By the time you read this issue of the Voice, Carleton will be well into winter term. And I hope by then I will have finally trained myself to refer to terms as trimesters rather than semesters — a slip that’s hard to avoid after spending years navigating fall/spring calendars!

Trimesters might seem like a small detail, but the reassuring regularity of the academic calendar is one of the most traditional elements of higher education. Most colleges and universities publish their schedules years in advance, so students and families can plan familiar rituals like fall dropoffs, winter vacations, graduations, and reunions. Within each community, these specific dates are sacrosanct, as predictable and unchanging as national holidays.

Of the many disruptions caused by the coronavirus, its impact on the academic calendar remains among its most immediate, dramatic, and lasting. Over the past two years, we have become accustomed to learning that a particular college, in an effort to outrun the ebb and flow of COVID-19, is starting a term late, or is beginning classes remotely, or changing the dates of a break. These kinds of last-minute changes would have been unthinkable three years ago.

During the two-plus years of the pandemic, academic institutions have adapted in some remarkable and unprecedented ways. Now, because the crisis has lasted longer than expected, we’ve arrived at a point at which it’s not clear which elements of flexibility are temporary and which have permanently changed our understanding or expectations. Changes on the order of when the school year starts, or whether courses will be remote, are highly visible institutional adaptations. At a level below that, there have been specific policy changes, such as the move to test-optional admissions at Carleton and many other colleges, that were originally envisioned as temporary but which many colleges are considering making permanent.

Within Carleton’s academic program, temporary changes were made at the start of the crisis to policies involving satisfactory/credit/no credit courses, add/drop dates, and other structural constraints. While many of those adaptations have since been reversed, faculty members are finding that students are still eager for greater flexibility in making choices and meeting deadlines. Some students are surprised or frustrated that rules have returned to “normal” when the world has not yet returned to normal. We all expected there to be a clearer moment when we could say that special exceptions would no longer be needed. But we all continue to feel the stress and strain of constant pivoting. Some degree of continued flexibility seems necessary. The question is: how much and for how long?

Faculty members and administrators nationwide are pondering this question in relation to a variety of issues. For instance, the breakdown of predictable structures during COVID left some students struggling to manage their schedules, which some educators believe makes returning to strict deadlines and policies even more crucial, since time management is an important life skill. On the other hand, inherent inequities in higher education, which the pandemic has further highlighted, lead others to conclude that increased flexibility is not only a humane response to the COVID crisis, it may also be an appropriate response to ongoing disparities that continue to affect the most vulnerable students.

As Carleton looks ahead to the coming years, I believe this period of enforced flexibility and experimentation will have proven instructive on many fronts. The institutional balance that served students well 10 years ago will likely not be the right balance 10 years from now. We must continue to grow and adapt, just as we expect our students to do.

Carleton is in a strong position to be a leader in these kinds of discussions. We have a deeply engaged and highly regarded faculty that is known for excellence in teaching. We also have an exceptionally curious and hard-working student body. Our community’s shared commitment to a meaningful education makes me confident we will emerge from this period as a college that is prepared to use what we have learned to address the challenges of the future.

I look forward to the strategic reflections and discussions that lie ahead. In the meantime, I’ll work on getting used to the idea that the first half of the year was really only a third of the year, and that we still have a long way to go before commencement!

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