Winter holidays warm hearts of US faculty

January 6, 2006

Any US university faculty members or students who overindulge in the spirits of the season will have plenty of time to recover.

Winter holidays on most US campuses extend for more than a month in a country where working professionals count themselves lucky to get three weeks of vacation a year. On top of this there is the Thanksgiving break and a range of public holidays.

Despite student anger over, and political opposition to, the rising cost of higher education, US universities have refused to provide more instruction time. In fact, they are providing much less than they used to.

Although it varies from one campus to another, the average length of the academic year has declined by ten weeks since the First World War - six weeks in the past thirty years alone - according to a study by an organisation of conservative scholars.

Not only do winter holidays now stretch into late January, but graduation ceremonies, once held in mid-June, now barely make it into May.

Conspicuously, students themselves have not lobbied for longer academic years, fearing they will lose a competitive edge in the job market by prolonging classes.

As Sheldon Steinbach, vice-president and general counsel of the American Council on Education, said: "Although one might think that in light of the increase in cost of higher education there would be a dramatic demand from parents and students for a lengthened academic year, I have seen no evidence that this has occurred."

He said that instead "students have been demanding more time off, and that is accompanied by professorial desires for more research time."

Typically, US academic staff are eligible for a one-year sabbatical every five to seven years, depending on their discipline. That perk also appears to be safe. "I have seen no changes," said Andy Brantley, chief executive officer of the College and University Personnel Association.

Meanwhile, rising energy prices have nudged universities in colder climates into staying shut as long as they can in the winter and southern ones into turning the air conditioning off as early as possible in the summer.

"Many universities utilise a generous holiday allowance for employees during December, and they have a regimented process of cutting back the heat and regulating utilities while they are closed," Mr Brantley said.

A typical US university opens in the first week of September and closes mid-May. It has 33 weekday holidays, including a five-day Thanksgiving break in late November, a month for the Christmas and New Year period, a week-long spring break, and a four-day Easter weekend. Many have Martin Luther King Day off in January and some close for major Jewish holidays in autumn.

There has been discussion about one change to the calendar, said Ruth Flower, spokeswoman for the American Association of University Professors: adding weekend classes and making the semesters even shorter and more intensive - both measures to accommodate working students.

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