Stanford University students, who pride themselves on all-night coding and conversations about Kierkegaard, have received a startling wake-up call: Next fall, class could start at 8:30 a.m.

While the working world -- and many other college campuses -- are wide-awake at that hour, Stanford is notoriously nocturnal. The most popular classes now begin no earlier than 10 a.m.

But the university is looking for ways to spread out its schedule, making better use of lecture halls that are crowded at peak hours and silent the rest of the day.

Students, however, are alarmed.

"Late at night -- that's when the cool stuff happens," said 19-year-old Viraj Bindra, a symbolic systems major from Singapore. "I stayed up until 7 a.m. this morning on computer science problem sets."

About 1,700 students quickly signed an online petition urging administrators to abandon the proposal. Angry that they weren't consulted, they said the proposal was "deplorable and should be retracted immediately."

The problem, according to university registrar Tom Black, is that too many courses are crammed into the 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. time slot. He is also unhappy that students "double book" classes, with overlapping schedules. He will pitch the plan to faculty on Wednesday.

To study the time-space problem, Stanford hired a Washington, D.C., consulting firm, which produced the report "Scheduling Block Redesign for Main Campus Classes: Rationale and Proposal Overview." It found early classes would make better use of classroom space.


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To be sure, a few Stanford students are already well acquainted with that bright, shiny object called the rising sun. Athletes can be found in the handful of classes that are now held at 8:30 a.m., so their afternoons are free for practice. But the masses prefer classes in the middle of the day, like the immensely popular human biology or organic chem.

None of this comes as much news to crowded public schools like those in the University of California and California State University systems, where students are expected to be in their seats by 8 a.m.

Long ago, administrators there concluded that early morning classes -- filled with bodies draped over desks and slumped in chairs, faces frozen in masks of attentiveness -- make the most efficient use of space.

Even Stanford-caliber sophisticates such as Yale University and Princeton University hold early classes. Princeton starts at 8:30 a.m.; Yale, 8:20 a.m.

Some researchers argue it's unwise to inflict early morning classes on young adult brains. Studies show that, physiologically, they're most alert in the later afternoon and evening. Sleep is an investment that reduces stress and improves productivity, according to one study. Another study found students earn higher grades in classes meeting later in the day -- while the effects were small, they were statistically significant.

"It is a significant difference for students who hold jobs, participate in a wide variety of extracurricular activities and are accustomed to staying up late in order to finish their schoolwork," said history and political-science student Lauren Miller, 20.

"The most compelling things happen at night," Bindra said last week, after about two hours of sleep. "Night is when you hammer away at code or design, dance, practice your instrument, or stay up conversing with amazing people about humanism, or the classics, or religious principals."

Against that, they weigh dawn's one advantage: fresh coffee in the student union.

Contact Lisa M. Krieger at 650-492-4098.