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University considers wiping religious holidays off calendar

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University at Albany officials are considering removing all breaks for religious holidays by next year, a change that comes with a long history of debate at the university.

The Office of the Registrar argued that the proposal would make scheduling classes easier and more in line with state law, while religious groups on campus decried the loss of holiday recognition.

Registrar Karen Chico Hurst said that the calendar committee of the office recently proposed the removal of religious holidays to the university administration.

Chico Hurst said the change, if approved, would put the school’s calendar in line with the state’s government calendar, allowing the school to better comply with state laws.

New York state laws require the university to hold 15 weeks of classes a semester.

When the academic schedule fails to meet the 15-week requirement, starting and finishing dates of fall and spring semesters must be moved around, which in turn impacts the starting dates of the winter and summer sessions.

By removing all religious holidays from the calendar, the committee hopes to create a more predictable calendar that aligns better with other universities and colleges.

The decision would remove class suspensions on the holidays of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover, and Easter.

BACKLASH

“I’m very disappointed for both attending and perspective Jewish students,” said Rabbi Nomi Manon, a chaplain in the Interfaith Center, who explained Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the holiest holidays in the Jewish faith.

“It’s a big draw for Jewish students attending this school hat they get these days off to observe and be with their families,” he said. “It makes a negative statement about how our school campus supports religious diversity.”

UAlbany is currently in the minority on the issue of giving students off for these holidays.

Out of all 64 schools in the SUNY system, the only universities who have Jewish holidays off are UAlbany, Binghamton, Oswego, Nassau Community College, and Rockland Community College.

“One of the reasons I chose this campus,” said Riva Taksir, a Jewish junior, “was because of the strong Jewish presence. I always felt that I was supported and that the holidays were respected.”

Sandy Damhof, pastor of Cornerstone Campus Ministry, agreed with Manon.
She said the proposal was in line with the recent controversial relocation of the Interfaith Center into a smaller space on campus.

“I think all of this sends a message to the students about what the school really cares about,” said Damhof.

According to Chico Hurst, the problem most focus groups have pointed out is how to tell students of the changes without them interpreting it as administration taking away students’ religious rights.

“Students and faculty need to know there are other alternatives that allow them to observe their religious holidays without penalization.”

UAlbany currently adheres to section 224-A of the New York State Education Law, under Title IX, which states that no student can be expelled or refused admission due to missing days because of their religious beliefs.

The law also states that students missing class due to their religious beliefs are excused from any examination or work on that particular day or days.

The Registrar’s Office has suggested providing faculty and students with a list of all religious holidays and days of observance so that they could know when to excuse students.

Farzana Nazrana, a Muslim junior, already has to attend classes during the 30-day fast of Ramadan.

“I’m against the school taking away holidays from the Jews and other religions,” said Nazrana. “They need time to celebrate, and I think Muslims should get time off for this as well.”

HISTORY

According to The Instructional Year Calendar of the University at Albany (2012), the practice of suspending classes for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Passover/Easter began in 1980, after being proposed inconsistently for 10 years previous.

The 1980 bill from the University’s Council on Educational Policy said holidays were needed because of scheduling conflicts.

These included the need for earlier suspension of classes to allow for travel before Jewish holidays, the need for a later start to classes on the day after Easter, and the necessity, in some years, for faculty to submit grades on Christmas Eve.

In 2004, The University Life Council introduced a bill to suspend classes for two major Muslim holidays, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.

This proposal went unapproved by the Council on Educational Policy for the 2005-06 calendar amidst concerns that, “other religious groups would follow suit and request recognition of their religious ceremonies by designating school holidays…”

A similar bill to eliminate the suspension of any religious holidays was proposed in 2005 in response to this issue. However, it was ultimately dismissed by former UAlbany president Kermit Hall due to the “closely divided vote by the Senate,” along with a lack of representation in the university’ undergraduate population.

Despite the turbulent history, Chico Hurst has made it clear her main goal in this decision is to improve the quality of education for students.

“The first six weeks is vital to a students’ academic retention,” said Chico Hurst, “and students in different sections of the same class get on unequal footing [due to class suspensions of religious holidays].”

No final decisions have been made thus far.

 

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article contained information from Registrar Karen Chico Hurst. It depicted her as saying that focus groups had worried that students would think their rights were taken away. Hurst, at the time of interview, only described the focus groups as urging the university to communicate the proposal well and to let students know how they could observe religious holidays. As of Oct. 29, 2018, the university has not provided reporters with data or reports from the stakeholder focus groups.

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