The Malleable Academic Calendar: Then and Now

The 2020-2021 academic calendar includes some changes adopted to address the COVID-19 outbreak. This is not the first time that Columbia’s class schedules have yielded to health and national emergencies. 

Commencement 1964. Scan 3482. Office of Public Affairs Photograph Collection, University Archives.

The University’s priority in this coming academic year is to “make as much in-person instruction and campus life possible as conditions allow by controlling density, enhancing pedagogical flexibility across different schools and programs, and working to ensure that students’ plans for their education can best proceed.” To this end, the 2020-2021 calendar includes the possibility of immersive courses (A & B), an earlier Commencement ceremony in late April, and a full summer term. These changes are only the latest examples of how Columbia’s academic calendar is malleable and responsive to circumstances.

Outbreak in 1758

King’s College (as Columbia was then called) held its first Commencement in 1758. The service was held at St. George’s Chapel and 8 students received Bachelor of Arts degrees.  However, the ceremony should have been on the second Wednesday in May “but for certain reasons,” as the Matricula or Register of Admissions or Graduations cryptically notes, “it was put off to the 21st day in June.” For a very new College holding its first ever Commencement, it doesn’t seem too notable if the dates didn’t go exactly according to plan. But the “reasons” may have something to do with the fact that President (and only professor) Samuel Johnson had been absent from the College for most of the school year (from November 1757 to March 1758). He and his family had moved to Westchester to avoid a small-pox outbreak in the City. In Johnson’s absence, the thirty students in the College were instructed by Daniel Treadwell, the first appointed Professor at King’s College, and the Tutor, Leonard Cutting.  

Summer Term Expansions

Next year’s 3-term academic calendar, with the expanded summer session and immersive course options, is not entirely new. While Columbia has held a Summer Session since 1900, the summer term was first expanded in 1942. To meet wartime demands, a new trimester or “accelerated program” was introduced. The summer term, which went from 6 to 11 weeks, featured full course offerings, including Core courses. It was designed to enable students to speed up their course of study and graduate in 3 instead of 4 years. Columbia returned to its peacetime academic calendar in September 1945.

Commencement Day Shifts

 Commencement 2021 is scheduled in late April. While Commencement may seem to be steeped in time-honored traditions, over the years its date has moved from April to October and back again. For example, a revision of the Statutes in 1836 tried to introduce a new tradition (or to take a more literal interpretation of the term Commencement). The summer vacation, which in those days was just a two-month break, was scheduled a week earlier so that it ran from the last day in July to the first Monday in October. Commencement, which used to take place in the first week in August, was moved to that first Monday in October: graduation and first day of classes were scheduled on the same day! This change, however, does not appear to have been very popular, and in the 1848 Statutes, Commencement returned to the end of the school year and was held on the “Wednesday next succeeding the fourth Monday in July.”  

So, when did Commencement move to the more recent May date? That change was introduced for the 1972-1973 academic year but that’s a story for another time . . .