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Now is our chance to kill ‘Berkeley Time’

Severin Borenstein, professor of business | August 7, 2020
Sather tower with clock.

UC Berkeley’s famous Sather Tower, also known as the campanile.

The way UC Berkeley schedules classes is pretty nutty. It’s not just that they begin 10 minutes after the announced time, with a 10 AM class actually starting on “Berkeley Time” at 10:10 AM and a course scheduled for 3:30 PM-5 PM commencing at 3:40 PM. That would be needlessly confusing in itself. But what makes this crazy is that only classes run on the 10-minute delayed schedule. Meetings start at the announced time (or at least are supposed to), without the 10-minute lag.

Which raises the existential question of “what is a meeting?”. Is a PhD oral qualifying exam a course, or is it a meeting? Are office hours considered teaching or are they meetings? You would think that a faculty meeting is clearly a meeting, but many of them actually start with a 10 minute lag to accommodate instructors who teach right up to the hour.

This leads to both confusion and plenty of wasted time. On many occasions each semester, I have waited for other faculty, or sometimes students, to show up for a meeting only to hear them say “I thought we were starting on Berkeley time.” And I’ve been on the other side of that a few times myself, showing up late for a meeting that started promptly on the hour.

Now, when I’m asked to attend any campus assembly, I try not to sound too peevish when I insist on clarifying whether we are starting on actual time or “Berkeley Time.” It’s not unusual for this to lead to numerous emails as each attendee expresses a preference for one time or the other, in the process wasting more of everyone’s time.

But now is our chance to end this chronometric muddle. We are about to start a new semester that will be almost entirely online. So many norms have changed, and expectations are so disrupted already, that no one has a clear understanding of how schedules will be set. Let’s take the opportunity to set them rationally.

Let’s declare that 10 AM means 10 AM and 3:30 PM means 3:30 PM. That the expectation is classes and meetings start at the appointed time, and typically end 10 minutes before the scheduled length.

No, that is not just shifting the confusion from the beginning of the class or meeting to the end. Once everyone is in the (virtual or physical) room where it happens, it is pretty clear when it has stopped happening. No one will be staying an extra five or ten minutes to see if it is really over. And if course schedules are based on the same time norms as meeting schedules, we won’t have this confusion to begin with.

The pandemic is creating a lot of hardship for universities, but there are also some opportunities. UC Berkeley should seize this opportunity to save time and reduce frustration by killing off “Berkeley Time.”

Severin Borenstein is the E.T. Grether Professor of Business and Public Policy in the Economic Analysis and Policy Group of the Haas School of Business.  He is also Faculty Director of the Energy Institute at Haas.