To hear some parents, students and faculty members tell it, Stony Brook University’s new academic calendar in September is withdrawing the “welcome” mat to Jewish students.
University officials insists, however, that its decision to no longer close school for major Christian and Jewish holidays is simply leveling the playing field.
“We are trying to be respectful of all religions,” explained Charles Robbins, vice provost for undergraduate education and dean of the undergraduate college. “We want to be equally welcoming to everybody.”
To ensure that some religions are not given preferential treatment, he said, the university is discarding the previously prepared calendar for next year and replacing it with one that keeps school open on Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, Passover and Holy Week. The discarded calendar had the spring vacation coincide with Passover and Holy Week, wherever possible; the new calendar is crafted to have the spring break divide the second semester in half, no matter when Passover and Holy Week occur. As a result, the break next year occurs one week before the holidays.
Arthur Shertzer, president of United University Professions, which represents 2,500 faculty and staff, said he is mystified by the university’s actions.
“The logic is that if we celebrate no one, we honor everyone,” he said.
The university’s five chaplains have all met with university officials to register their disapproval of the move.
Barbara Beaumont of Ardsley, whose daughter is a sophomore at the university, wrote a Feb. 28 e-mail to fellow parents asking their help in protesting the calendar change. She suggested that current students had applied to the school unaware that such a radical calendar change was in the offing.
“Many students need these days off, and in fact may have chosen Stony Brook as their school because of its calendar,” she said, adding later that Christian and Jewish students make up a majority of the student body.
But with the change, Beaumont said, these students are being “put in the position of choosing between his/her education and religion.” And she added that the “protocol in major public institutions [in New York State] is to respect major religious holidays and not conduct regular business. Other SUNY [State University of New York] schools, along with the CUNY schools, have these holidays off. Also, many public school districts in Long Island and Westchester, along with New York City, give these days off.”
Norman Goodman, a professor of sociology at the university, had two words for the calendar change: “It stinks.”
“It was done without any input except from the administration — and it was done in secret,” he said. “It does not take into account the variety of needs of faculty and students, and it shows no respect for religion. I’m concerned that fellow faculty members and students who are observant will be put at an unnecessary disadvantage.”
Robbins said the university would print a list of all religious holidays and “make sure that no one is penalized for practicing their beliefs. We will make sure that no exams or papers are due on these religious holidays.”
He said that although there had initially “been talk of having final exams on weekends, that idea was eliminated after consultation with undergraduate and graduate student governments. So there will be no finals or make-ups given on Saturdays or Sundays.”
But Goodman questioned how students would be able to make up the class work they miss, even if exams are not given.
Shertzer, the union president, pointed out that a committee of faculty, students and administrators had already made up the school calendar through the year 2015.
“This came out of nowhere,” he said. “There was nothing wrong with the calendar we had. It’s been that way forever. Then the president formed a committee of four administrators [and changed it]. It’s about sensibility and it’s about process — including the community in the decision making process.”
A parent whose daughter is a senior at the school, Orrin Tilevitz, had one word for the calendar change: “Nonsense.”
He said the university is being disingenuous by claiming it was religion-neutral in developing the calendar, because the new calendar has the school closed on Christmas.
“So now they are discriminating against the Jews,” he said. “You are playing favorites by closing on Christmas and not on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.”
Robbins said the university would be closed on Christmas because the unions took it as a contract holiday, it is a national holiday and the date falls conveniently between the first and second semesters.
“We need to maximize instruction time and make sure classes are not interrupted by a shortened week,” Robbins said. “We have so many science majors, and many of the faculty found that so many holidays disrupted their instruction, particularly the labs. So the new calendar will be consistent from year to year so that faculty, students and staff could plan ahead.”
Stony Brook Hillel sent a letter to Jewish students assuring them that “appropriate religious services” would be held on campus should they be unable to spend holidays with their own families.
Although the calendar change was discussed with members of the university’s Interfaith Center in December, it wasn’t until late last month that most students learned of it.
In an interview, Beaumont said only a few parents have responded to her request for help protesting the change, and that none of the public officials or the chancellor of SUNY have replied to her letter. She stressed that this is an issue that affects those of all faiths.
Robbins said that based on a student questionnaire, Jews make up only 5 percent of the 24,100 undergraduate and graduate students at Stony Brook University. He said 8 percent of the students are Muslim, 4 percent Buddhist, 26 percent Roman Catholic, 24 percent other Christian, 5 percent Hindu, and that 28 percent of students filled in “other/none” box.
He pointed out that Stony Brook is a member of the American Association of Universities, which represents the top 63 research universities in the country, and that Stony Brook, the State University of New York at Buffalo and Brandeis University are the only ones in the AAU that close for specific religious holidays.
But Goodman dismissed the comparison, saying: “You can’t compare New York with Kansas or Utah. Compare it with the four university centers of SUNY [which close for specific religious holidays].”
Using the university’s figures, Beaumont pointed out that “if you combined the Jewish and Christian students at the school, they make up more than half the school. And there are state university guidelines that say the university is supposed to accommodate students.”
The school’s five chaplains cited those guidelines in their letter to Stony Brook University President Samuel Stanley Jr. objecting to the calendar change. They quoted the guidelines as saying “campuses should try to avoid the scheduling of classes or other courses of instruction on those days when a significant number of members of a religious faith at that campus typically observe the expectation of their faith and wish to be absent from school or work.”
The chaplains told Stanley they had met with other administrators about the change and believed it to be an “ill advised change that will have negative implications for the university that are both practical as well as symbolic.” They noted that as members of the Calendar Committee they had worked to ensure the calendar met state education standards for classroom instruction as well as “recognizing the major religious observances on which many faculty and students are not able to be present.”
The guidelines, the chaplains wrote, “exist precisely to ensure that higher education in the State of New York will remain open and accessible to everyone, including those who are religiously observant.”
Rabbi Joseph Topek, the Hillel director at Stony Brook, wrote to parents March 1 expressing the chaplains’ concerns that “large numbers of students will miss important course work” because faculty and staff will be unable to teach on major religious holidays. And he said that although the university will provide students with a chance to make-up for work missed for religious observances, many students are “intimidated or frightened by the prospect of revealing personal information to a teacher in order to ask for make-up work.”
He added that “if significantly larger numbers [of students] are on campus for Passover and the High Holidays, Hillel will do its very best to provide for them.”