Fall 2021 instruction of six University of Wisconsin System schools starts during the holiest time of the Jewish calendar, Rosh Hashanah.
University leaders expressed regret about the scheduling conflict and said it is too late to change the academic calendar, according to the Wisconsin State Journal. WSJ also reported administrators will make UW instructors aware of the holiday and direct them to make course materials available in a remote format.
President and CEO of UW Hillel Greg Steinberger said the UW policy requiring students to notify their instructors of specific dates in conflict with course instruction is hard to implement in this case because there is no first day of school before Rosh Hashanah begins.
“It is now the very first day of school, which requires arrival on campus, moving in and showing up in a situation where the university does not have a track record, or certainly not a good one, of reaching out in advance of arrival on campus about academic work,” Steinberger said. “So the first day is complicated, in a much different way than it was [when Rosh Hashanah began on] the second, third or fourth day of school.”
Steinberger said the impacts of this issue are not limited to students — for example, staff including student employees, residential hall directors, and professors are also affected.
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Likewise, people will feel impacts regardless of the way UW chooses to recognize their identities and holidays, Steinberger said. Individuals may choose to celebrate narrowly by showing up to church or synagogue, or more broadly by contemplating with family and not going to service and that is an issue of their self-definition of their religion, culture and ethnicity, Steinberger said.
“Of course, regardless of our faith backgrounds or cultural and ethnic backgrounds, we are suffering and living through a pandemic, which means we are collectively also experiencing mourning,” Steinberger said. “So, here, you have this conflict that ‘could have, should have’ been averted and certainly could be changed if there was a will to do so.”
Executive Director of the Wisconsin Jewish Conference Michael Blumenfeld said the incident involving this year’s Rosh Hashanah is a symptom of a much broader issue.
Blumenfeld co-authored a letter to UW System President Tommy Thompson drawing attention to how this scheduling conflict is problematic and calling for the System to address it in a way that recognizes diversity.
“We said in the letter that no students should be forced to make this decision between observing their religion and going to class, but it’s not just Jewish students and not just Jewish holidays, it’s recognizing the true diversity of the broader university campus,” Blumenfeld said.
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WSJ reported UW Chancellor Rebecca Blank said she “deeply regret[s]” the conflict and moved the university’s formal welcoming event from Sept. 7 to Sept. 3. WSJ also reported Thompson told Jewish leaders academic calendars are developed far in advance.
UW Director of News and Media Relations Meredith McGlone said in a written statement to The Badger Herald the university will ask faculty and instructors to provide course material in advance or make it available online so a student will not be disadvantaged by missing class.
“We have asked our Registrar’s office to carefully review the academic calendar in all future years to identify potential religious conflicts well in advance so that we can make changes when appropriate,” McGlone said in the statement.
McGlone also said UW recognizes and regrets the first day of classes held on the second day of Rosh Hashana represents a challenging conflict for students and instructors.
Steinberger said in all aspects of life, mistakes are often made in the past because of other people’s responsibility, but that does not mean nothing can be done about it today.
“It’s not really an okay thing for an administrator on campus to say, ‘I feel so badly about this. It happened before my time or other people made this five years ago,’” Steinberger said. “That does say something about priority, even if they can’t make a change, it says something about priority and it says something about inclusion, and it says something about diversity, and it holds true … for everybody.”
Steinberger said there can be stronger guidance provided to faculty, staff and students that make unrecognized challenges, which are not experienced by the majority culture, more recognized. Steinberger referenced the University of Michigan as an example of a university that provides a list of religious holidays that might pose a conflict with their academic calendar.
Steinberger also said there should be a public apology acknowledging the impact and harm caused, as well as clarity on how it will not happen again.
“I think the other part of accountability is clearly identifying now who can students, parents, staff members talk to, either because they’re an employee on campus and they want more information about a conflict, or because they are personally impacted by a series of situations,” Steinberger said.
Steinberger said students want to know how this happened, who is responsible and who is going to fix it, but there have been no answers since he started dealing with the issue Dec. 18, 2020. Students do not know how to deal with this and where it is an institutional priority, Steinberger said.
Blumenfeld said the System needs to adopt a communications plan.
“We still don’t really know what the plan is,” Blumenfeld said. “We’re kind of in a spot where ‘no one will be penalized’ and ‘we’ll make accommodations,’ but we don’t really know what that means.”
Blumenfeld said he thinks the fall 2021 start date should and can be changed but he is also interested in helping with a process giving the university communities a System-wide policy that is transparent.
Steinberger said he hopes to see UW be a local and national leader in solving these problems.
“It’s easy to sort of say, ‘Let’s focus on the problem of the calendar and the start of school,’ but I think that there’s a much bigger question about what does it mean to think about inclusion and diversity, and to educate around it, to celebrate around it, to help our community advocate for itself and recognize each other’s experiences,” Steinberger said.