As religious diversity grows on campus, so do potential conflicts between holidays and university events
A few weeks after the start of fall classes this year, University of Missouri student senators began hearing about conflicts between the school’s academic schedule and student religious observances.
Among the concerns were professors’ office hours that fell during some students’ weekly worship times and exams scheduled on religious holidays.
A university policy encouraged instructors — but did not require them — to make reasonable accommodations for students’ religious activities.
Thalia Sass, a sophomore biology and religious studies double major and president of MU’s Jewish student organization, Mizzou Hillel, was among the students who raised questions.
“I have been personally affected by professors who are ignorant or intolerant of the needs of people practicing minority religions,” Sass said. “Minority students should not be put at an academic disadvantage because of their religious beliefs and practices.”
The Columbia campus is hardly alone in discovering that its instructional practices may sometimes be at odds with an increasingly diverse student body. In recent months:
- the University of Buffalo drew criticism when it elected not to cancel classes on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, for the first time in 37 years;
- the University of Georgia came under fire after the Athens campus scheduled its homecoming football game on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar;
- the Muslim Students’ Association at the University of Michigan and Michigan State University postponed their Eid al-Adha feasts until two weeks after the holiday, in part to avoid conflicts with student midterm exams; and
- the Universal Society of Hinduism, citing the increasing numbers of Hindu students on campuses, called on all universities in the United States and Canada to declare the fall festival of Diwali as an official holiday.
For many institutions across the country, such conflicts are nothing new. Some have adopted policies directing instructors to provide individual students with alternatives to testing dates, mandatory class exercises, and other assignments when they conflict with those students’ religious observances.
In September, Sarah Mangelsdorf, provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, joined other administrators in reminding the school’s instructional staff that a student’s claim of a religious conflict “should be accepted at face value.”
“A great variety of valid claims exist for religious groups, and there is no practical, dignified, and legal means to assess the validity of individual claims,” Mangelsdorf’s memo noted. “State law mandates that any student with a conflict between an academic requirement and any religious observance must be given an alternative for meeting the academic requirement.”
Such clear and firm direction to faculty is what Sass found lacking in the University of Missouri’s policy on religious observances. Benjamin S. Vega, academic affairs chairman of the Missouri Students Association, worked with Mizzou Hillel and other students to propose a revised policy, which Vega says has been well received by the university’s Faculty Council.
“The new policy … puts responsibility on faculty to do what they can to ensure that students are able to get the most out of their education while practicing their religion, and also puts responsibility on students to inform their professors of their religious obligations in time to plan around them,” Vega said. “With an appropriate amount of notice, anything can be worked around.”
Added Sass, “It is a give-and-take relationship between the students holding themselves accountable, and the professors doing their best to meet the needs of the students. There are some professors who are accommodating, but the policy would require all professors to meet the needs of minority students.”
Some university administrators might worry that acceding to claims of religious conflict by students of one faith will spark a deluge of requests from countless others. In fact, criticism of the University of Georgia’s scheduling of homecoming on Yom Kippur prompted Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh students to launch a petition of their own. They noted, among other concerns, that a major accounting course exam was conducted on Diwali.
University administrators would do better to embrace the growing diversity of their campuses and bring various minority populations into the process “rather than just hope for the best, or try to guess at what might work or not work, or just be insensitive, which is the worst way to go,” said Charles C. Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum Institute in Washington, D.C.
“I’ve learned that the time to buy the fire truck, as it were, is before the fire — to get out ahead of this.”
For example, Haynes recommends that administrators tap ethnic and religious groups and student ministries well in advance to assist in formulating their academic and activity calendars.
Universities might also emulate some public K-12 school systems, where religious conflicts often burn with particular emotional intensity; districts in Richardson, Texas, and Ramona, Calif., among others, have formed standing committees of citizens representing various faiths to provide ongoing guidance on such issues.
“Anything they can do to make this a safe and caring environment for people of various faiths is probably going to be a very good business plan for a university,” Haynes said. “I think it’s only a problem or cause for division when these questions are ignored and people are ignored.
“The one place where we should be preparing people to live in a religiously diverse society peacefully, if any place, is on a college or university campus. If we don’t do this there, people will not be able to do it in the public square.”●
Michael Rene Zuzel is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.