This January, a Northwestern University task force recommended modifying the quarter system to allow for an earlier start to the school year. To realign the calendar with semester schools, the plan would split Winter Quarter, add additional breaks and create opportunities for 5-week or 15-week courses. But after nearly eight decades of task force scrutiny and countless complaints about the unusual structure, why has the University stuck with such a polarizing academic calendar?
It all comes down to one man. One man and $36 million.
When Walter P. Murphy donated this sum, equal to over $600 million today, to the University in 1939, he required only that the Technological Institute, now the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, establish a cooperative learning program for students to alternate time on campus and in the field. Due to the program’s structure, the University Senate concluded that “the quarter system is practically imperative,” according to a 1941 committee report.
Murphy, an entrepreneur who made his fortune patenting parts for the railroad industry, hoped the Institute would “couple a world class engineering education with the principles of co-op,” says Helen Oloroso, assistant dean and director of the McCormick Office of Career Development.
“A gift of that size was unheard of at the time,” Oloroso says.
The donation funded the entire construction of the Technological Institute building, uniting the engineering programs and faculty under one roof.
But its impact extended well beyond Tech. When the Institute adopted the quarter system to accommodate co-op in 1942, the semester-run College of Arts and Sciences had little choice but to play along.
A report favoring the quarter system said widespread adoption would synchronize the two calendars and provide greater course variety and flexibility. Moreover, it would be a boon to the war effort, since the Naval ROTC, made up of one-third engineers, was struggling to operate on two systems at once. The quarter system’s summer term would allow students to graduate earlier to join the war effort.
“If the Institute is so important to the college, then anything that will aid the Institute such as adopting the quarter plan should be seriously considered,” wrote committee chair Malcolm Dole in a 1941 report.
Despite opposition from College faculty, the system stuck. Since then, it has been subject to countless Daily Northwestern editorials and task force inquiries.
While one March 1943 article disparaged the system for cramming information “down our throats in as little time as possible,” others told students to suck it up. “Anyone who is in school for an education should be looking for something better to do than sip Cokes,” the Daily wrote in February 1943.
Faculty never abandoned the fight, however. University task forces in the 1960s and 1980s examined the system’s success, often with inconclusive results.
University Archivist Kevin Leonard says he’s never been able to explain why the University kept the system around, especially since it has garnered many complaints over the years.
“It’s like the force of tradition,” he says. “It seems to me that we do it this way because it’s the way we do it.”
Although the 1988 Task Force on the Undergraduate Experience came out against the quarter system and proposed solutions including a semester plan, a follow-up committee issued no mandate for change, supposedly “in light of the many imponderables involved in so major a matter.”
Professor Gary Saul Morson, who served on the 1988 Task Force, says these committees often encounter inertia.
“The recommendations went nowhere,” he says, citing what he called a “basic pattern” in opinion that made the shift to semesters impossible. “Since I’ve come here, students generally prefer quarter system and faculty don’t.”
While some faculty condemn quarters for their hurried pace and intensity, students like the variety the system provides. According to the 2014-15 ASG Student Survey, 62.5 percent of students prefer the quarter system and only 20 percent favored a shift to semesters.
Still, quarters come at a cost. Oloroso says the timing of the current academic calendar disadvantages students seeking internships or co-op positions, since most employers function on the semester system.
The Task Force’s proposition will remedy this, says Task Force Chair Indira Raman. The new “10-5-5-10” calendar would begin in late August and end in May, providing for a more traditional academic year.
“We thought, ‘How can we retain the good parts of the quarter system and overcome some of the complications?’” Raman says. “[The “10-5-5-10” plan] is a way to accommodate a whole variety of possibilities without forcing a particular possibility on anyone.”
The plan would mean big changes for Northwestern, but it still leaves us one of the few elite universities left on the quarter system. Nearly 80 years later, with over half the student body in support of quarters, it’s hard to blame Murphy. Intensity has simply become part of the process. We’re not sipping Cokes anymore.