McLaughlin: Northwestern quarter system could do better


William McLaughlin, Columnist

It’s become a ritual. Every August, Northwestern students say goodbye to college-bound friends with classes nowhere in sight. This puzzling anomaly is not just another campus quirk — it’s a nuisance to students and faculty.

I am convinced the quarter system has a net benefit. Students can not only graduate on time but also double or triple major. A single grade counts for very little in the grand scheme of things. And students can take time off to pursue internships, travel or be a ski bum without many consequences.

NU is not alone in its schedule-around-us approach. Stanford University began classes this year on Sept. 23 and will end June 4. The University of Chicago also begins late September and ends mid-June. And at UCLA “instruction” begins the last full week of September, with spring quarter ending the second week of June.

But Dartmouth College has a cleverer and ultimately more student-friendly approach. Classes begin Sept. 16 and final exams end June 3. The advantage for Dartmouth students, who spend one summer on campus during their undergraduate years, covers both their time at the university and their summer plans.

If NU shifted the calendar a week earlier, students would have more choice with their summer plans. Final exams end June 13 this year. But many internships, study abroad programs and research at other universities begin in May when other schools finish. I know students at NU who had to drop certain classes to start their internships on time — and even take finals from New York. This calendar, then, means students have to sacrifice a hard-earned internship or grant for a required course. This entire situation could be avoided by an earlier summer start date. Seniors would also appreciate another week of summer after graduation and before their jobs begin.

But there would also be an upside for students during the school year. This fall, NU’s home opener against Syracuse was Sept. 7, long before classes were in session. A shift to an earlier start would align both our academic and athletic calendars.

NU is a great warm weather campus. The Lakefill, deserted in the winter months, welcomes droves of students in the first and last two weeks of school. If school were to begin a week or two earlier, students could enjoy life outdoors on campus for an entire month. Especially for new students, whose memories of sun will fade in the winter, this extra sunny time could help them through the long cold front.

NU is part of small-but-strong group of universities that sees value in the quarter system. There are worthy scholastic and institutional reasons for not switching to semesters. But we must also recognize the flaws of our calendar and work to fix them.

William McLaughlin is a Weinberg senior. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you want to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].