Published April 4, 2013
The Faculty Senate Executive Committee has recommended that UB hold classes on the Jewish holy days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur while maintaining Labor Day as a day off for its employees and students.
Acting for the full Faculty Senate, which could not vote on the two resolutions at its March 5 meeting because it did not have a quorum, the FSEC on April 3 voted against a proposal to hold classes on Labor Day—7 yes, 12 no—and in support of a proposal to hold classes on the Jewish holy days—13 yes, 6 no.
The vote is purely a recommendation to President Satish K. Tripathi; Tripathi will review the recommendations, in consultation with Provost Charles Zukoski, and ultimately make the decision on the two resolutions, according to William H. Baumer, professor of philosophy and Faculty Senate parliamentarian.
The senate held an open debate on the proposals at the March 5 meeting, and senate Chair Ezra Zubrow, professor of anthropology, invited numerous stakeholders to the FSEC meeting to further discuss the proposals before the final vote.
Laura Hemlock, director of Hillel, the campus center for Jewish life serving 3,000 UB students, addressed the proposal to hold classes on the Jewish holy days.
Hemlock said that although students are supposed to be able to take time off to celebrate religious holidays with no consequences, many students have told her they have problems with faculty allowing them to do that. She also said that she is an UB alumna, and experienced the same thing firsthand.
She told senators that she has a petition signed by 400 students—both Jews and non-Jews—“who feel very passionate about this issue and feel those holidays should still be given off.”
Hemlock explained that it is against Jewish law to do any kind of work, including attending classes, on these holy days. Moreover, services last all day, and fasting is required on Yom Kippur, she said.
Attending classes on these days would pose a hardship for students. “These are very important holidays to these students,” she said.
Edward Fine, associate professor of neurology, said Rosh Hashana is an important holiday in the Jewish faith, and students should be able to attend services without having to “beg” their professors. These holy days frequently occur in September, when classes “are high gear. If you miss a day, you’re missing quite a bit and you may not be able to make it up,” he said.
Fine also said holding classes on these holy days would affect student recruitment. “A sizable portion of our student pool is Jewish, and if word gets out that UB is not going to give students off for Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashana, it will not help our recruitment,” he said.
Elaine Davis, professor of oral diagnostic sciences and associate dean for student affairs in the School of Dental Medicine, said she was struck during the March 5 debate by comments from students who had trouble with faculty honoring religious holidays. She said she had great difficulty finding UB’s official policy regarding religious holidays. The policy “needs to be more broadly disseminated,” she said, and faculty reminded that any student absence for religious reasons must be without penalty. “We need to honor that,” she said.
Suzanne Miller, associate professor and chair of the Department of Learning and Instruction, Graduate School of Education, noted that UB’s Christmas holiday has become winter break and the university observes a spring break. “In our rhetoric, we have moved away from holding religious holidays sacred in a state institution,” she said, calling that move “a good one. We cannot address all the needs of all the students and their religious needs.”
Melvyn Churchill, professor of chemistry, said he favors “religious neutrality.” He said that having holidays in the middle of the week “causes havoc with the lab courses…I would be much in favor of removing the Jewish holidays from the calendar,” he said.
Joseph Mollendorf, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, agreed with the idea of religious neutrality. “What it comes down to is, if you don’t have a religious-neutral calendar and treat all religions the same, then it seems to me you’re going to have to get into a discussion of which religious holidays and which religions are more important than other religions,” he said. “And then it gets real sweaty and sticky quickly. A way to avoid this is to have a religious-neutral calendar.”
Baumer opened the discussion on the resolution to hold classes on Labor Day by outlining several arguments in favor of the proposal. He said it is disruptive, both in terms of classes and student behavior, to take Labor Day off.
In addition, holding classes on Labor Day would allow UB to eliminate what he called the “stub week” before Thanksgiving—classes on that Monday and Tuesday often are poorly attended and sometimes cancelled.
Several faculty members said they had polled their colleagues on the issue and they overwhelmingly supported keeping Labor Day as a holiday.
Barbara Rittner, associate professor and associate dean for development, School of Social Work, noted that many of her faculty members said that it would be “nearly impossible” to secure child care on Labor Day. “If we talk to our faculty, we’re going find they are not in support of this, whatever the rationale is,” she said.
Ray Dannenhoffer, associate dean for support services, School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, noted that several years ago the dental school experimented with having a full-week break at Thanksgiving. “It kills momentum at the end of the semester,” he said, arguing that momentum lost with days off at the beginning of the semester evens out over the course of the semester, but momentum lost shortly before finals “is killer.”
And the theory that having a full week break at Thanksgiving will keep students from missing classes the Monday and Tuesday before Thanksgiving is flawed, he added. “Even the dental students blew out early the week before (their full-week break),” he said. “They leave early anyway; the undergraduates certainly do that, so you won’t see them in class the Thursday and Friday” before Thanksgiving.
Dannenhoffer, who also serves as president of the UB Health Sciences Chapter of UUP, the union representing SUNY faculty and professional staff, also said there would be contractual issues if employees were required to work on Labor Day and Tripathi tried to designate it as a floating holiday.
Moreover, “Labor Day is a family holiday; it’s not the holiday to be teaching classes on,” he said, noting that the University at Albany no longer holds classes on Labor Day.
Fine said he surveyed two major state institutions—Ohio State and the University of Connecticut—and neither hold classes on Labor Day. In addition to violating labor contracts, holding classes on Labor Day “sets the wrong atmosphere for a school that’s supposed to be friendly to families,” he said, adding that UB will face serious problems with student recruitment if it holds classes on Labor Day.
Ann Marie Landel, customer support analyst with CIT Network and Classroom Services, and chair of the Professional Staff Senate, pointed out that many departments do not allow their employees to take time off the week or two before the start of a semester. Staff members work hard to get things ready for the beginning of a semester, Landel said, and the majority of those who spoke to her on the issue would like to keep Labor Day as a holiday and be able to spend it with their families.
Mollendorf said FSEC members should do what they think is the “pedagogically correct thing to do.”
“I would be in favor of this change for academic reasons,” he said. “If you look at what our charge is…I’m going to vote on it from the educational point of view; what I think is better for the students.”
My primary problem with implementing this "religiously neutral" calendar is that not all faculty appear to respect students' religious needs. Some faculty are either not educated about the law or seem to ignore it. At the same time, are students truly empowered to follow through with a complaint when faculty actions are punitive about religious observance? My impression is that it would be a very difficult situation for any student. In an ideal world, all would be able to practice without having to fear repercussions from those holding the power. Unfortunately, we are not there yet. Christmas is always honored.That's fine. Consequently,talking about "religious neutrality" is a bit disingenuous.