Vanderbilt administration announced on Dec. 4 the addition of four new readings days to the spring calendar. The announcement asked faculty to refrain from scheduling exams or large assignments on these days but still requires students to attend class.
The plans follow deliberation by the Ad Hoc Committee on Spring 2021 Wellness Days. The committee, announced on Oct. 26, included one undergraduate student, one graduate student, eight faculty and two staff members.
Per Vanessa Beasley, vice provost for academic affairs and the committee’s chair, the group met twice and collected feedback from across the university before submitting a written recommendation to Provost Susan Wente.
The Hustler spoke with four committee members, including the sole undergraduate representative, as well as Vanderbilt Student Government senators who sponsored the VSG Resolution for the Addition of Wellness Days to the Spring Semester. The Hustler examined the ad hoc committee’s work, how it took student feedback into account and how the new reading days came to be.
Why cancelling class was never an option
The ad hoc committee’s recommendations were constrained by several overarching guidelines in its charge from the provost, Beasley said.
First, wellness days could not take place on Fridays or Mondays since three-day weekends might encourage student travel during the pandemic. Second, faculty had to have flexibility in implementation.
Finally, no classes could be cancelled.
Per Beasley, this last constraint reflected the realities of accreditation, which govern the length of each semester. Removing any class days from the already finalized spring calendar would have dropped Vanderbilt below the length needed to maintain accreditation.
Per Olivia Kew-Fickus, the assistant provost and executive director of the Office for Planning and Institutional Effectiveness, the final arbiter in such questions is Vanderbilt’s own policy, which defines credit hours in accordance with SACSCOC and federal guidelines. Kew-Fickus cited the following statement from page 86 of the undergraduate course catalog as representative of university policy:
“One semester credit hour represents at least three hours of academic work per week, on average, for one semester.”
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), the regional body that accredits Vanderbilt, offers more specific guidance on semester length.
Per an SACSCOC policy statement, one credit hour equals “not less than one hour of classroom or direct faculty instruction and a minimum of two hours out of class student work each week for approximately fifteen weeks.”
Given that the finalized spring calendar includes exactly 15 weeks, removing a class day from the spring calendar could jeopardize the university’s accreditation on two counts, Kew-Fickus said: failure to adhere to the SACSCOC’s guidelines for semester length and inconsistency with Vanderbilt’s own policies.
Without accreditation, Vanderbilt students would be ineligible for Pell Grants, subsidized loans and other forms of federal financial aid. The reputation of the institution and the prestige of students’ degrees could also be at stake, Kew-Fickus said.
“Now in reality, over something like this, would we lose our accreditation? Probably not, but we could find ourselves under some kind of scrutiny, which would stop us being able to do other things,” Kew-Fickus said.
In short, the only way to remove a day of classes would be to add an instruction day at the beginning or the end of the semester. Neither was a viable option.
Beasley, who also co-led a committee to revise the Spring 2021 calendar, said the decision to push back the semester start date to Jan. 25 arose from concerns about a COVID-19 surge and overlap with the flu season. Adding days to the end of the semester would have jeopardized graduation plans for the Class of 2020 and the Class of 2021, Beasley said.
Senior Puja Jagasia served as the sole undergraduate representative on the ad hoc committee. She also currently serves as the student representative on three other active university committees and as chair of VSG’s Academic Affairs Committee. The ad hoc committee’s inability to cancel class frustrated her throughout the process, Jagasia said.
“From the bottom of my heart, I wish that we could just cancel two days in a row and then add one at the beginning and one at the end,” Jagasia said. “So it was a little frustrating for me to hear such a resounding ‘no’ for that.”
The Committee’s Recommendation to the Provost
Per Beasley, the committee met two times before submitting a written recommendation to the provost.
“An ad hoc committee just really means pulling people together for a very specific task,” Beasley said. “When the provost asked me to pull a committee together and chair it, I even said to people, ‘This may not be more than two or three meetings,’ because it’s just a specific task.”
Per Jagasia, the group met for the first time on Oct. 20. At the first meeting, members of the committee were charged with gathering feedback and input from their respective constituents.
Jagasia estimated she conducted around 40 student interviews in the following week and even collected input informally through the first-year Discord channel. The feedback varied based on students’ undergraduate school, Jagasia said.
“I heard a lot from Peabody students and actually Peabody faculty from people who were on the committee that a lot of professors have taken initiative to work their own wellness days already into their curriculum this [fall] semester, even though there [are] no university-required wellness days, per se, currently,” Jagasia said.
In contrast, students from the School of Engineering reported skepticism that their professors would follow recommendations for a wellness day, given their past experiences with reading days, Jagasia said.
Per Jagasia, the committee’s final recommendation to the provost closely resembled the recently released plan: four class days throughout the semester when faculty would be encouraged to avoid exams or large assignments.
Beasley also emphasized that the committee wanted to make the days a true wellness boost for all constituents—staff included. For that reason, the committee did not recommend any wellness programming to be held on those days.
“If they decide to be called wellness days and we have additional programming about wellness, what that really does is create more labor for staff, because they would be putting on the programs,” Beasley said.
Flexibility in Faculty Implementation
Though the committee’s name refers to “Wellness Days,” the recent announcements promote the additions as “Reading Days,” alluding to the traditional end-of-semester days where no finals or large assignments are assigned. Next semester’s pre-finals reading days, for example, will take place the first four days of May, with the new in-class reading days scheduled for Feb. 23-24 and April 7-8.
“Thinking through how you frame things is really important,” Beasley said. “Calling something a wellness day to me might also imply that the rest of the time you shouldn’t be practicing wellness, so I personally—and again, I don’t speak for the committee—I wanted us to be careful about the language we were using.”
The comparison to traditional reading days also highlights another limitation of the committee: neither their recommendation nor the provost’s ultimate policy would hold enforcing power over the faculty.
“The report will never be able to say, ‘This is what faculty have to do.’ A report like that couldn’t do that,” Beasley said. “That’s one of the reasons it’s a good idea to come up with a range of suggestions or a range of ideas.”
This flexible implementation style is one reason Jagasia believes the calendar changes won’t significantly decrease student stress.
“I don’t think anyone on the committee is under the impression that this will solve every student’s mental health challenges right now,” Jagasia said. “That’s not what these days are for.”
Still, both Beasley and Jagasia expressed hope that the reading days will occasion creative conversations between faculty and students about wellness on a long-term scale.
“If this creates a conversation about how we can sustain and support each other’s wellness throughout hard times—because hard times are going to come again—that would be a really great outcome,” Beasley said. “Sometimes those conversations only happen because there’s a really clear presenting need.”
VSG Wellness Days Resolution
Almost two weeks before the announcement of additional reading days, the VSG senate unanimously passed a resolution calling for the addition of no-class wellness days.
First-year senator Katey Parham said she used her personal experience from the fall semester to fuel her work co-writing the resolution.
“Being a freshman, I was thrown into this new academic environment, new city, new people,” Parham said. “Having 65 consecutive [days of] classes was not the easiest transition, to say the least.”
Parham was one of six writers of Resolution S: 20-21-14, Resolution for the Addition of Wellness Days to the Spring Semester. The resolution, which passed unanimously on Nov. 18, called for the addition of one wellness day each month without scheduled classes or activities.
Per second-year senator Virali Patel, the senators discussed writing such a resolution in their first session this fall and met with Assistant Provost and Deputy Dean of Students G. L. Black who oversees the Student Care Network. Black explained to them the restrictions from accreditation that prevented the university from cancelling class, Patel said, but the senators still included the request to add weekdays without class.
“We knew that it might not be possible for them to do one mental health day per month, but that’s what we wanted,” Patel said. “That was our ideal goal. That’s why we added at the end, ‘If you can’t do this, then please ask our input.’”
Jagasia said she pushed back on this final stanza during the drafting process because she felt the university had adequately solicited VSG’s input throughout the process.
“Administrators were very, very respectful of VSG’s autonomy, and I’m grateful that they included me on that committee to represent students,” Jagasia said.
Though the final plan for spring reading days does not meet the resolutions’ requests, Parham, Jagasia and Patel all emphasized the document’s symbolic import.
“That’s the Senate’s job: to make statements that show what the student body is thinking about right now,” Jagasia said. “And that is something that the student body is really thinking about right now.”