By Trevor Christian
Trevor Christian is a staff writer for The Stony Brook Independent. His views do not necessarily represent the views of the publication or its editorial board.
Stony Brook University first announced changes to its academic calendar months ago, but recently national news and opinion outlets, including Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, have taken exception to them.
The basis for the coverage and outrage (for conservative and Jewish outlets, the lines were often blurred) was Stony Brook’s decision to hold classes on Jewish and Christian holidays. University officials, including Vice Provost Charles Robbins, have defended the decision to provide maximum instruction time for students in a way that did not favor or punish any religious groups. But critics like Fox’s Steve Doocy said that he would steer his children away from Stony Brook if given the chance.
“If I knew going in that they’d have to go to class on Good Friday, I’d suggest that they go to another school,” Doocy said during an interview with a Stony Brook student.
Student reactions to the new calendar has been mixed. Dueling petitions have been started online, with the one in support of the old calendar gathering many more signatures than the one supporting the new. The changes were made in response to student complaints about the timing of spring break. The Jewish holidays were not named as a source of controversy.
Outside of the student body, arguments for and against the calendar have been more ideological in nature and almost without exception, ignore key constituencies or facts.
The vice provost is correct in saying that the new policies now put Stony Brook more in line with its peer research universities. But while there is certainly precedent elsewhere for holding classes on religious holidays, there is not at Stony Brook. It is one of the few State University of New York schools that cancelled classes on those days, so there is a good chance some students factored that into their decision when choosing a university. For Stony Brook to change the calendar in an unscheduled manner is an affront to those students.
Stony Brook’s press release ignored the criticism the new calendar received from religious groups and leaders on campus. They insist that students would be able to take the day off without it affecting their classwork, but the students who will be affected insist otherwise. Stony Brook student Aaron Gershoff said on Fox that classes will still go on without him and that catching up on the work might be difficult, especially if there is a test the following week. That is hard to argue with.
Although the press release explained who was involved in creating the new calendar, it did not admit that the process by which the new calendar was made, and not just the result, was irregular. Stony Brook had already prepared calendars for the next three years, yet they were discarded in favor of a new calendar, and the normal process was abandoned in favor of something more secretive.
Criticism of the new calendar has come from both sides of the aisle. Phillip H. Smith, the president of United University Professions, the faculty union, has come out against it. Democrat Sheldon Silver has asked Samuel L. Stanley Jr., president of Stony Brook University, to return to the previous calendar, a move that Limbaugh and conservative religious groups would surely agree with.
Many critics of the new calendar failed to note that Jewish students, who get up to three days of classes cancelled each year, are outnumbered by Muslim students, who get none. The argument that classes should also be cancelled for certain Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist holidays was addressed by Stony Brook in a press release, but not raised by the calendar’s critics.
Newsday was one of the few publications to come to Stony Brook’s defense. In an editorial, the paper said the conversation over the calendar needed to be “more civil and less strident” and that the decision “makes sense.”
But Newsday’s editorial defended Stony Brook against outside critics, not against the unhappy students and professors who, rather than using the inflammatory rhetoric they described, were expressing personal concerns.
Coverage of the story, news and opinion alike, has mostly, and rightly, been centered around how the calendar change will negatively impact some students at the university.
Most religious outlets portrayed the story within that framework, even if a few made the mistake of letting sources say ridiculous things unchecked (for example, it is not state regulation that we have these holidays off.) Unfortunately, two outlets that reach many more viewers, Fox News and Rush Limbaugh’s radio show, covered the story from a less appropriate angle.
“The silent majority, made up of Christians and Jews alike, are not doing anything to destroy this country – they’re not doing one thing to harm it – and yet they’re sitting around and watching the destruction take place all around ’em,” said Limbaugh on his radio show. Doocy mocked the idea that “fair” should be a part of any Christian or Jewish holidays.
Thinly veiled bigotry has no place in a discussion about religious freedom from any side, and it is not helping anyone at the university with legitimate concerns. Stony Brook students deserve attention to their case that conservatives have been giving them, but not to have their agenda co-opted by people who do not believe in religious freedom for all. The ridiculousness of the attacks may have actually helped the university defend their position with moderates.
These outside voices also serve as a distraction to the administration, which should be focused on assuaging concerns on campus. This is important not only because the fears are legitimate, but because the new calendar does a lot of good.
Yes, Stony Brook could have gone about the process in a better, more inclusive way. That is normally the case with this administration. They excluded religious groups when making the calendar and are still downplaying their concerns to an extent. But ultimately, their decision is better for the majority of the campus, especially the part concerning the sometimes disruptive timing of spring break. Still, we do not know what a compromise with religious leaders would have been like. It might have been better.