By Kori Tuitt
Stony Brook University revised its academic calendar to increase reading days for students, which will now hold classes on Jewish and certain Christian holidays, effective next semester, according to Vice Provost Charles Robbins.
Jewish students will no longer be off for Rosh HaShana, Yom Kippur, Passover and Holy Week. Christian students will not be off for Good Friday, and Easter will not coincide with spring break in the new academic calendar. According to the university website, Christmas is not affected in this calendar change because it is “negotiated into union contracts.” Now 22 of the 29 four-year State Universities of New York (SUNY) follow this academic calendar.
Robbins said that the new calendar “maximizes class time and lab time” and also “offers equal respect to all faiths.”
The proposed change was discussed among representatives from the Registrar’s Office, Office of the Provost, Student Affairs and Colleges of Arts and Sciences in December 2011, according to Robbins. He said the proposed changes were presented to the University Council, University Senate and both the Graduate and Undergraduate Senate in January of this year.
Deborah Machalow, executive vice president of the Undergraduate Student Government said that it took nearly a year and a half for proposed changes in the calendar to be presented to USG.
“The USG is supposed to represent the students and therefore we’re supposed to be included in major, campus-wide decisions,” she said. “It’s a complete violation of shared governance and it’s terrible.”
Robbins met with the members of USG to discuss the issue.
“The only concerns that the students had were that they wanted more reading days,” said Robbins, “and they didn’t want exams on the weekends.”
The original proposed calendar change included having exams on weekends, but that was eliminated in the final product.
Rabbi Joseph Topek, campus rabbi and director of the Hillel Foundation for Jewish Life, said he was surprised when he first heard of the proposed changes and said it is practical to cancel classes on those holidays.
“Many faculty will not teach on major religious holidays and many students will not be able to attend classes,” he said in an email interview, “so this is often a matter of practicality so it does not disrupt the business of teaching.”
On Dec. 12, 2011 Topek wrote a letter, which is a public document, to President Samuel L. Stanley Jr. that read:
We are also concerned because the Interfaith Center has been
represented on the Calendar Committee for many years and has worked
diligently with the Office of the Provost to design calendars that meet state
education mandates for classroom instruction and also recognize major
religious observances on which many faculty and students are not able to
be present. We had put into place calendars through academic year 2014-
2015 and were not informed that these calendars are deficient in any way
nor consulted as to potential alterations or changes in the policy.
Norman Goodman, a sociology professor at the university, said he was angered when he first heard of the proposal.
“The manner in which it was done suggests that the views of the faculty and students didn’t count,” he said.
Goodman said he was part of the university’s calendar committee two years ago, when they designed a five-year academic calendar.
In response to that Robbins said, “Those are always subject to change and at the discretion of the university.”
Goodman also said this will negatively affect religiously involved students’ perception of the university.
“It will send a message to observant Jews and Christians that maybe this is not the place for them,” he said, “because it doesn’t respect their needs.”
Machalow said this calendar change will make the university “less diverse.” She said students may attend other SUNY schools — such as SUNY Albany, Buffalo State and Binghamton University — that still recognize those holidays in their academic calendars.
Topek said he was planning on finding ways to include important Muslim holidays in the academic calendar during the next phase of the calendar’s revision. He said that process “might have meant being creative and compromising with other holidays so no additional class days would be lost.”
“For Muslim students the hope of having their important holidays included has now been dashed,” he said.
The Young Americans for Freedom chapter at the university has started a petition against the revised calendar, but it may be in vain. Robbins said this will be the academic calendar for at least the next three years. After that time, there will be a review of the calendar.