Kansas State students have 80 consecutive days of class between breaks. That’s about double what many other four-year Kansas Board of Regents schools have, but that’s unlikely to change anytime soon.
Despite what Jansen Penny, student body president and senior in industrial engineering, quantified as “overwhelming” student support, faculty nixed it, and Provost Charles Taber, who gets final say on the university calendar, indicated he’s not in favor of adding a fall break.
“My own view is that we should not make a change to something like the calendar, which has consequences for curriculum, has consequences in a variety of ways … without having clear evidence that in fact it will address the issue we are trying to address,” Taber said.
The debate on the issue started in May, when the University Calendar Committee first proposed a calendar adding a two-day break in October for the 2022 to 2025 academic years, said Tanya Gonzalez, president of faculty senate and professor of English.
The “robust” debate, Gonzalez said, deals with student well-being and mental health, a hot topic among students and faculty as internal reports from the Division of Student Life and Counseling Services indicate increases in usage of services and diagnoses of anxiety disorders and depression.
Heather Reed, associate vice president for student life, expressed her support of adding the break to the calendar. She said in the last academic year, Counseling Services saw 6,571 visitors, a 10 percent increase from the year prior.
“If a break were allowed in the time of maximum stress in October, we believe more students would be able to manage their stress in a better manner and would be more successful through the end of the semester,” Reed said.
Sarah Barrett, faculty senator and Clery Act compliance officer, spoke on behalf of the Emerging Student Issues and Trends Committee.
“We believe that providing a small reprieve from classes at a critical time in the academic year will allow students to take a step back, evaluate their semester and leverage the necessary energy to finish their semester on a positive note,” Barrett said.
Several academic college’s leadership, Student Health Services, the Office of Institutional Equity, Counseling Services and K-State Police cosigned Barrett’s debate.
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Early opposition to the break cited lack of data supporting the idea that adding two days off to the calendar in the fall would really address students’ mental health. Or that October is the right time to implement a break.
A survey sent out on social media by Penny, and Ali Karamali, student body vice president and senior in chemical engineering, yielded results that follow trends of increasing stress and unwellness. Close to 800 students responded.
One question asked respondents to report when they felt mental health challenges and depression. More than 56 percent of the 773 students who responded indicated they felt as such toward mid-semester, in October.
Additionally, more than 51 percent of respondents cited they felt overwhelmed or experienced higher stress at the mid-semester point as well.
Another key finding from the survey indicated more than 95 percent of students said having an extra two-day break would improve academic performance. Also, 78.32 percent said they would return to their permanent home during a break.
Penny said many students who provided anecdotal responses to the survey said they are out-of-state students who get few opportunities to return home. An extended weekend would give those students more opportunity to see their families, he said.
“This is something impactful,” Penny said.
Penny and Karamali said they hoped data from the survey would help inform faculty senate and Taber in the official decision-making process.
“A lot of faculty’s drawbacks last time they discussed it at faculty senate was there’s no data to support this,” Karamali said. “We’re not looking at somebody at a different type of school that may have different needs [anymore].”
During the Sept. 5 student senate meeting, Student Governing Association unanimously passed a special-ordered resolution supporting the amended university calendar proposed by the University Calendar Committee.
Special-ordered legislation and resolutions bypass procedure and their passage serves as expedited approval. Hannah Heatherman, speaker of the student senate and senior in finance, said it’s the first time in more than two years such an action has occurred.
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The action received multiple debates in the positive and had no criticism as it passed through the body.
“Special ordering is not something that you do lightly,” Andrew Booze, chair of Senate Operations Committee and junior in computer science, said.
When the calendar came up for faculty senate approval, Heatherman urged the body to vote in favor of it. As part of K-State’s shared governance model, Heatherman votes in faculty senate as a student representative.
Voting against the break “[undermines] the will of the student body” who are the true stakeholders in the situation because their money pays for the university, Heatherman said.
“This is the university community trying to sort out what’s best for our calendar and also sort out what we can do to most effectively champion student wellness while maintaining our academic mission,” Gonzalez said.
People who oppose the added break are concerned about disrupting academic curricula.
Some faculty senators, like Brett DePaola, head of the Physics department, said he was concerned about some programs losing accreditation.
Mohammad Hosni, professor of mechanical and nuclear energy, voiced similar concerns.
“By taking more days off we have two choices: cram the material into the remaining days of the semester … or just not cover it which means that the students that are paying more are going to get less,” Hosni said. “I respect the students, I do care about their wellbeing, but I’m concerned about teaching less and them learning less.”
A recurring denominator in Taber’s argument against adding the break is a peer reviewed study from 2019 conducted at a Canadian university that implemented a fall break. The study polled students before and after a fall break, and determined students felt higher levels of stress after the break.
“Student mental health is extremely important to me, but I do not see compelling evidence that an additional fall break would serve this important goal. Without this evidence, I will not change the calendar,” Taber said in an emailed statement.
During the Sept. 10 faculty senate meeting, Taber mentioned the study again.
“While having a break does have fairly fleeting effects on stressor events, the overall cumulative effect across the semester was higher stress with the break,” Taber said.
Taber said he consulted with professionals in the Division of Student Life and Counseling Services, which puts him in contradiction with Reed and Barrett.
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One specific person Taber said he consulted is Thomas Lane, vice president for student life and dean of students. Heatherman expressed concern for this, saying when the meeting between Taber and Lane occured, Lane had only been on campus for a month.
Penny said he didn’t think Taber spoke to all the necessary parties before coming to a decision.
Also, Penny said he felt Taber stepped out of line when he aired his concerns and desire to vote against the calendar early in the process.
“I’m personally very frustrated in the way that our process, that’s been outlined, … was disrupted by the Provost’s very intentional comments to all of us,” Penny said.
“I think faculty senate should be insulted that he disrupted the shared governance model there to be honest,” Heatherman agreed. “I don’t understand why faculty senate, in the largest part at least in my perception, is okay with the final check jumping into the middle and swaying the conversation.”
During the faculty senate meeting, Taber was asked if the whole debate was essentially unimportant if he still had final say on the decision and his intentions were already clear.
“Regardless of what you think I may decide to do after this, I think you should make a recommendation to me that is your honest opinion,” Taber said in response.
Taber then left the meeting for a prior commitment.
In an email, he said he plans to have a decision made by the end of the week.
Do you have an opinion about adding a fall break, curriculum or student mental wellness? Send your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org.