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Senate GBM recap: supply funds, 14-week semester

The Undergraduate Student Senate opened their meeting on April 13 with a presentation from the Academic Affairs committee. Academic Affairs chair Emily DuBois gave the presentation on the Online Learning Resource and Art Supply Fund for the fall 2021 semester.

This fund was created in 2020 to address students’ needs for course materials. Online Learning Resources (OLR) are softwares required for a course that is not available through Computing Services. Examples include iClicker, iDecisionGames, and Sapling. The Art Supply includes paints, film, and clay.

The Senate began investigating OLR expenses in 2019; the original sample of students surveyed estimated that approximately half of undergraduates were taking a class that had online resources with costs not covered by financial aid. In response, the Senate created the OLR/Arts Fund to cover the cost for students. The fund was implemented in the 2020-21 Senate bylaws and created a $6,000 initial funding source. For the 2021-22 school year, the Senate increased the funding supply to $10,000.

There are some considerations taken into account when a student is applying, whether it is for an OLR or an art supply, the type of course (if it’s for a major/minor requirement, if it counts for a major/minor, or if it’s for an elective), and if the student has financial need. Students applying for funding had the opportunity to explain their needs. The request also has to include documentation of the resource’s requirement, like a course syllabus.

In the fall 2021 semester, the Senate received 135 requests from students to receive aid from the OLR/Arts supply fund. Of those requests, 23 percent were for OLR and 77 percent for art supplies. This compares to 32 percent for OLR and 68 percent for arts supply in 2020. A total of $10,405.77 was approved for distribution for 106 of the 135 requests. Juniors had the most approvals at 39 (totaling $2,912.40), sophomores had 25 approvals ($3,025.78), seniors had 21 ($2,607.57), fifth-years had 20 ($1,830.03), and one first-year received $29.99.

About a third of the approved requests were courses in the art department, with design and drama courses combined making up about 40 percent of requests. Some student experiences that were part of the request process included, “this costs more than my weekly grocery budget” and “I don’t want finances to interfere with my success in the course.”

The Academic Affairs committee noted that course expenses are not clear to students in advance of registration. Additionally, very specific or non-standardized material requirements force students to purchase options that do not suit their budget out of fear of receiving a worse grade on assignments if they use less expensive materials. It was also noted that students have expressed concern that course expenses create a “great deal of hardship for their daily lives and don’t have/know of support elsewhere.”

The Academic Affairs committee wants professors to include material and cost expectations with the course registration description and syllabus. They also want the standardized materials across several courses (where applicable) to cut down on extra expenditures.

After the presentation by DuBois, a short presentation from the Senate Executive committee regarding the streamlining of Senate’s communications and internal affairs followed. The premise of the recommendation was to consolidate the Communications committee and the Internal Development committee into a singular committee: the Senate Operations Committee. Both committees have historically struggled with low membership, and previous Executive committees had discussed consolidating them, but it had never been acted upon.

The committee was consolidated because several initiatives were sidelined due to understaffing. The hope of consolidating is that a moderate-sized membership that remains stable will lead to more effective work with other committees and better-maintained new initiatives. If this recommendation were to pass the Senate, the previously existing committees would dissolve at the end of the 2021-22 Senate session and the Operations committee would be established at the beginning of the 2022-23 Senate session.

One of the stated responsibilities of the new Operations committee would be to maintain a student-wide newsletter detailing current and upcoming Senate happenings, along with Senate representatives’ contact information. They would also be in charge of maintaining the Senate’s web space on Carnegie Mellon’s Student Government website, including membership, along with planning and scheduling content on the Senate’s social media pages. It was noted some of the social media responsibilities that the Communications or Internal Development committee currently hold would be better suited for other committees, like the creation of some social media content would be moved to the Operations committee.

As part of the recommendation outlined by the Executive committee, the Senate plans to expand the positions of Graphic Designer and Clerk. The Senate Graphic designer would serve as an ex officio member of the Operations committee, attend committee meetings, and take requests from committees. The Senate Clerk would also serve as an ex officio member on the committee since the position has responsibilities for some current Communications tasks, like maintaining meeting minutes, and some Internal Development tasks like keeping track of meeting attendance. The recommendation passed with a vote of 16-0-1.

The next presentation came from a teaching professor of computer science and the director of the computer science undergraduate program, Mark Stehlik, who serves as a co-chair of the Calendar Innovation committee. His presentation outlined the current proposed calendar for academic year 2022-23.

The committee held an assessment at the end of the fall 2021 semester to gather feedback from students, advisors, and faculty to evaluate the switch to the 14-week calendar. It was noted that it would be difficult to separate the community’s experience with the 14-week calendar from the pandemic and the return to on-campus operations, along with recognizing the university’s rationale for a new calendar system.
The committee received feedback from students, faculty, and advisors who shared concern that decreasing instruction time would lower the quality of the Carnegie Mellon learning experience. Stehlik said that some of Carnegie Mellon’s peer institutions exemplify how a shorter calendar alone does not necessarily impact the value of an institution’s education. The proposed calendar includes the introduction of a fall break, creating symmetry between the fall and spring semesters. This came from the recognition from all the groups that a break not only offers the opportunity to rest and rejuvenate, but will also lessen burnout in the latter half of the semester.

Overall considerations from the committee resulted in the “1-2-3 Consensus” for the fall semester: provide a one-week fall break, two weeks of classes after Thanksgiving, and a three-week winter break. The new proposed calendar leads to four less instructional days per semester. In the fall semester, there will be 65 instructional days compared to the 69 without the fall break, and a 67-instructional day spring semester instead of 71. Stehlik noted one of the four lost instructional days can be made up in some classes if professors decide to consolidate an exam that is usually held during the last week and the final exam.

The meeting ended with general announcements. The Joint Funding Committee is holding their second-round appeals on Wednesday, April 20, during the Senate-Graduate Student Assembly ratification meeting. Tours of the Forbes-Beeler Apartments, which will be opening in Fall 2023, are being held on April 20 and April 21 for students. An additional announcement noted the rise of COVID-19 cases on campus. There was some discussion regarding whether another mask mandate will be needed on campus, and the meeting adjourned shortly after.