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Speaking Out

Biked Again

I want to thank Professor Ann Elizabeth Mayer and Almanac for speaking out on bicycle safety. About a month ago I was walking on Spruce Street (on the sidewalk) between 36th and 37th Street when I was hit from behind. I was hit hard enough that I fell backwards onto the bike as she crashed to the ground. My pants were ripped and I ended up bruised and sore for a week. When I realized that I had just been run over and turned to check on the rider, she indicated to me that I should not have walked in front of her. This person did not give me any warning at all before she slammed into me from behind so I could not even get out of the way. I'd like to point out that there was a bike lane a few feet from me on the street.

It is my understanding that pedestrians have the right of way on sidewalks. Isn't there a law in Philadelphia that states that bicycles are not allowed on city sidewalks? Is the policy different for Penn?

--Melissa Ameika, Gift Coordinator, External Affairs, Wharton School

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On "Biked" and the Response

For the record, there have been serious injuries to pedestrians on the Penn campus from collisions with bicycles. One of my colleagues suffered a broken ankle from such an accident which occurred behind the library on the Walnut Street sidewalk. The injury required surgery to repair. Because my colleague is not litigious, no legal proceeding followed. Even though the bicyclist stopped and University Police came, no summons for the offense was issued. These incidents are swept under the rug.

Chief of Police Rambo's response leaves much to be desired. It does not even speak to the University's responsibility to enforce Commonwealth law concerning riding bikes on the sidewalk in a commercial area and/or where a bike lane is provided.

Further, the suggestion that an offense be reported from the nearest Blue Light emergency phone is ridiculous. By the time the call gets through and the police respond the "perp" could be in Center City.

-- Michael Wisniewski, Library Acquisitions Bookkeeper, Secretary/Treasurer, AFSCME Local 590

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Reality Check

Chief Rambo's response (October 15) to Professor Mayer's concern for pedestrian safety in the face of bicycle traffic in prohibited areas bore no relation to reality, at least as I experienced it on the same day it was published, as well as on many other days. I observed 3 cyclists riding down Locust Walk at noon with nary a patrolman in sight to enforce the "Bicycle Policy." I dare say hundreds of pedestrians could come forth with stories of near misses as a cyclist swished by on the campus walks or sidewalks. How many times I have thought over the years that a sudden change in direction could have resulted in serious harm to me or to the cyclist--not to mention harm in the form of a lawsuit against the University. I speak, of course, of quality of life "crimes," control of which did much for New York City.

--Adrian R. Morrison, Professor of Behavioral Neuroscience

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Ed Note:

The Division of Public Safety was offered an opportunity to respond to the preceding letters and was informed by Maureen Rush, the Vice President for Public Safety, that she " will ask the University Council's Safety and Security Committee to examine the entire issue of Bicycle/Pedestrian safety issues."

So-Called "Fall Break"

In mid October, across the Ivy League and in most northeastern private colleges, the institution of "Fall Break" takes place, usually after 6 or 7 weeks of instruction. Fall Break got its start at Princeton in 1971, when the faculty decided to cancel a week's classes in October so that students could go home and work in a political campaign if they wished. It was a sound educational decision which most eastern private colleges and universities have imitated. But not Penn.

At Penn, the "Fall Break" has never been genuinely serious; throughout the 1980s and '90s, it consisted of a Monday-Tuesday in October, usually around Columbus Day. It wasn't much--nothing like that at schools that take education seriously--but it was something. However, sometime in 1999-2000, abruptly and without notice Penn's Fall Break vanished. No Monday-Tuesday break, but in its place the administration created a one-day so-called Fall Break that covers a Friday (last Friday in fact), a day when there are almost no classes at Penn anyway. So from a two-day break that affected everybody, that gave almost all students and faculty a brief respite in the 12 weeks of instruction between Labor Day and Thanksgiving, Penn has moved to a "break" on the one possible day of the week when almost no classes meet.

At best, Friday is a day when 5 percent of classes take place. In my department, English, for example, we have only 7 scheduled hours of instruction on Fridays out of a total of 291 hours of classes per week--two and one-half percent. And some departments appear to have no classes at all on Fridays. So Penn has a one-day Fall Break but it's virtually meaningless.

What's the situation with Fall Break at the other Ivies? Harvard has a 12-week semester and a 3-week reading period at the end, so it really doesn't need a break (Penn's reading period is four days). Dartmouth has a quarter system, three 10-week semesters with 3 weeks between each one, so it really doesn't need a break, either. Brown has 3 days (one in October, 2 in November before and after Thanksgiving break; Columbia/Barnard had 2 days in November; Cornell has 2 days in October; Princeton and Yale each have a full 5-day week in October). Penn has effectively nothing.

How about other private colleges? The three Philadelphia-area colleges with whom we cooperate--Bryn Mawr, Haverford, Swarthmore--each have a full 5-day week in October. One might well wonder how we can offer meaningful cooperation with these schools when our academic calendar is completely inconsistent with theirs. The Connecticut Valley colleges--Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, Smith--each have 2 days in October; Williams has 3 days (two in October, one in November; Williams also has a 2-week spring break). And a meaningful Fall Break can be found at almost every other private college in the northeast that has two 14-week semesters (Notre Dame, for example, has a 5-day week full break). But not Penn.

No school, anywhere, appears to have one-day break on a meaningless Friday.

Who is responsible for the Penn academic calendar? The answer is, or seems to be, the Provost's Office. The office of the deputy provost is deeply evasive about the process of making up and changing the calendar. The cancellation of Penn's long-established Fall Break took place sometime in 1999-2000, but the Provost's Office has evaded all my questions as to who actually did this, whom they consulted with and what the educational purpose of the change might have been. There is absolutely no evidence that the provost consulted with any student or faculty groups. There were no announcements that the matter was under consideration; the first anyone heard of a possible change was the publication of a new calendar in May 2000. The Council of Undergraduate Deans may have been involved, but it is a secretive committee--one cannot consult its agenda, there can be no observers at meetings, the minutes of this committee are "not available for consultation".

The Provost's Office seems to believe that the fact that it has lengthened the orientation period for first-year students from 4 to 7 days makes it necessary to cancel our two-day Fall Break. It is difficult to see any connection between orientation for new students and the education of everybody else. But when this office cancelled our two-day Fall Break, one would expect that we could then shorten the fall term by two days; yet the fall semester's length is unchanged. Surely after a 7-day orientation period we need a 5-day break, not virtually meaningless Friday. Most schools approach the idea of Fall Break with sound educational thinking. Why is Penn incapable of such thought?

The first of President Wilson's famous Fourteen Points was this: "Open covenants openly arrived at" Wilson wished to overcome the long-held belief that diplomacy consisted of "Secret deals secretly connived at." Penn has always been proud of its openness on important educational issues. But in this matter of the cancellation of Fall Break we are very far from President Wilson's noble ideal.

-- Paul J. Korshin, Professor of English

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Response to Calendar Query

Of course, not all universities and colleges even have a fall break, and the length varies quite dramatically among those that do. Columbia, which Professor Korshin does not mention, has a one-day break. Yale, which he does mention, in fact has no fall break at all (he refers to five days in October), but does close for the whole of Thanksgiving week.

The Council of Undergraduate Deans (CUD) is charged with establishing the academic calendar each year. The fall semester, as all of our faculty are acutely aware, is already substantially shorter than the spring term. That complicates the design of the fall calendar, as does the annual movement of Labor Day, which in turn affects the length of the reading period. (The reading period itself, by the way, has not uniformly been four days, as Professor Korshin says, but has varied in length.) The expansion of New Student Orientation, three years ago, which has enabled us to provide our incoming students with a far richer academic introduction to Penn, has put additional pressure on the fall schedule. Suffice it to say that CUD does its best to build a calendar that supports all of the diverse imperatives of the University's academic mission. There is nothing secret about that goal or its relevance to the complex task of determining the academic calendar.

-- Peter Conn, Deputy Provost

Speaking Out welcomes reader contributions. Short, timely letters on University issues will be accepted by Thursday at noon for the following Tuesday's issue, subject to right-of-reply guidelines. Advance notice of intention to submit is appreciated. --Eds.


  Almanac, Vol. 49, No. 9, October 22, 2002