How did it come to be that UMBC develop a class schedule with a “free hour” in the middle of the day?
—Donna Lewis ’87, English

UMBC’s “Free Hour” is the hour without scheduled classes occurring on Monday, Wednesday and Friday between noon and 1 p.m.

It’s a strange idea on the face of it, because it’s a mandated gap in the class schedule. But the club meetings, rehearsals, brainstorming and creative work that happen in that hour – especially in the days when UMBC was much more of a commuter campus, with a student body that would disappear to work or play off-campus at sunset – brought disparate elements of the campus community together and helped forge relationships that endure to this day.

So where did the “free hour” get its start? In 1970, a group of UMBC students formed a Student Union to address what it called the “power structure” of the university, and provide an alternative to SGA as a source of direct action and advocacy.

A March 24, 1970 article in The Weekly Retriever observed that “participants in the ‘movement’, as many have called it, are free to work within or around the system, or to provoke the system’s leaders into a direct confrontation. Everyone is responsible to himself; no one claims responsibility to anyone else.”

The Student Union held widely-attended meetings. Members protested what they viewed as unfair restrictions on the student literary magazine Dialogue. The Union also submitted three requests to the Faculty Senate. The first was that independent groups should have the right to solicit on campus. (They did, and still do today.) The second and most controversial request was abolish the student activity fee. (The Faculty Senate initially approved the request, but the fee – as every student knows – remains in place today.) And the third proposal was that UMBC establish a free and unscheduled hour for student assembly, organization, and advising.

The third request was granted. In September 1970, Free Hour as we now know it began at UMBC, scheduled on each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 1:00 – 2:00 p.m. (The Free Hour moved to noon in 2005). In increasing numbers, club meetings, lectures, and campus events began to take place during the hour. While class-free hours during the day are a rarity in higher education, UMBC’s tradition has endured despite repeated conversations about the pressures it creates on the university’s finite number of classroom spaces during the remaining hours each day.

The Retriever did not cover the Free Hour’s establishment, but has featured stories on occasional talk of modifying or eliminating it. In each instance, UMBC students and faculty have voiced support for maintaining this campus tradition.

As one sophomore student argued in 1981, the Free Hour symbolizes a UMBC where students stretch themselves to other students, and to the entire campus community, to learn and grow outside of the classroom. “Abolishing free hour abolishes what little time students have to interact,” David Branfman told the newspaper, “which in and of itself is an educational experience.”

– Lindsey Loeper ’04, American studies

(This piece was adapted from an earlier post on UMBC’s “Breaking Ground website.”)

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