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In recent weeks, College President Dr. Jonathan Palmer and the faculty have disagreed over a decision – and the process that led to it – to change when Principia’s Pre-Term Writing Seminar (PTWS) is taught.  In mid-November, Dr. Palmer moved the program from pre-fall orientation to the First Year Experience (FYE) program.

The course, designed for freshmen and students new to Principia, has been taught as part of a two-week orientation period preceding the start of the fall term. With the switch to semesters this year, the program was shortened to one week.

In his email to faculty and staff on November 16, Dr. Palmer explained his decision to incorporate PTWS into the Fall 2012 FYE and Integrated Learning Course (ILC) program. He emphasized “this is a decision about when to teach new students writing strategies – not whether to teach them.”

Following this announcement, Faculty Senate and Faculty Council met and after their discussions, opposed the change.  Faculty Senate voted unanimously against it. Part of the disagreement stemmed from a faculty feeling that matters involving curriculum came under their purview.  But as College President, Dr. Palmer said he is ultimately responsible for all matters relating to the college.

In an email sent out by Libby Scheiern on behalf of Faculty Council November 28, Scheiern explained that “it would be useful to have Jonathan meet with those faculty who have questions, thoughts, or concerns they would like to discuss with him.” Scheiern continued: “As cited in the letter from the Humanities unit, the way this decision was made was uncharacteristic of how we have been working as a community during these past two years.” Overall, the email communicated the idea that Faculty Council hoped to better understand the reasoning behind the decision.

At a meeting with the college president, faculty frankly and passionately expressed their concerns, according to those present. They said they felt excluded from the decision making process itself, and some asked why the administration did not seek faculty help in solving the problem Dr. Palmer had identified. Faculty requested that the decision be rescinded.  Following that meeting, Dr. Palmer wrote in a November 29 communication to faculty: “Using feedback from the 2011 Fall New Student Orientation, I felt the need for a quick decision so we could take quick action prior to Fall 2012. I was certain we all had Principia’s best interests in mind even if we disagreed about how and when to do things.”

Dr. Palmer acknowledged the Faculty Senate vote in his email: “What I heard from the Faculty Senate vote and those present later in the day yesterday is that no one supports the decision or the timing. I cannot ignore that apparent unanimity.” He added, “I still believe my decision is the right decision for our students, but I also know how dedicated faculty are to Principia’s purpose and Mrs. Morgan’s vision for educating our students.”

At the end of the message, Dr. Palmer said his decision would stand but that implementation would be delayed until Fall 2013.

Reasons given for the change included the feeling that integrating the writing seminar into the FYE program would allow for more “soak time” and give faculty more opportunities to provide feedback and individual assistance. In his email, Dr. Palmer also pointed out that the change “could be administratively simpler, reduce new student orientation time” and allow faculty to return to campus a few days later after summer vacation.

Another consideration was the amount of work and activity freshmen are already asked to do during orientation week. According to director of the Writing Center, Lynn Horth, “The issue of freshman exhaustion was under discussion in the Orientation Committee meetings. This committee was originally scheduled to meet all term.  However, after the September 30 meeting … all meetings were canceled for the remainder of the term.” Horth added: “A fair amount of data regarding this issue exists in a survey that was given to all freshmen after orientation; a much more careful analysis of the data really needed to be made before making any decisions.”
Horth also said that moving the seminar into fall semester – even in 2013 – could easily overload the new ILC program. Horth explained in an email that Writing Seminar generally requires about 20 hours of dedicated in-class work, which would infringe upon the 45 hours allotted to ILC in a single semester. Horth said ILC courses are “already filled with other curriculum” and therefore couldn’t accommodate such a large new component.