After several state schools scheduled the first day of class for Rosh Hashanah, the institutions issued letters detailing plans for tackling the problem.
The letters are varied. Several offer apology or regret. All except one promise a review of future calendars.
The problem arose when the University of Wisconsin-Madison and several other schools in the state system scheduled the first day of fall 2021 classes for the second day of Rosh Hashanah. Some school officials have acknowledged the conflict as an unfortunate error. It could have been avoided if the individual schools had planned better several years ago, according to UW System Board of Regents President Tommy Thompson.
The Wisconsin Jewish Conference, Wisconsin Council of Rabbis, Milwaukee Jewish Federation and Jewish Federation of Madison all asked for the university system to reconsider. But Thompson has responded that “any changes at this late date would have cascading effects on myriad areas from financial aid awards to course schedule.”
In a June 1 letter, Thompson asked each school – La Crosse, Madison, Oshkosh, Parkside, Stout and Superior – to detail plans by June 15 for addressing the conflict and for long term steps.
The responses, each from that university’s chancellor, varied.
Chancellors from Madison, Oshkosh, Parkside, Stout and Superior all said they are reviewing or have reviewed their future academic calendars with an eye to preventing conflicts.
The letter from University of Wisconsin-La Crosse did not indicate it was doing so, even though Thompson had asked for “longer-term mitigating steps that will avoid future conflicts ….” UW-La Crosse Chancellor Joe Gow responded on June 7: “As a public university, we do not make institutional policy based on any religion, regardless of the religion. However, the culture at UWL is such that we value the importance of religious observances for every individual of all faiths.”
There were some expressions of regret, in addition to Thompson’s assertion that all the chancellors are regretful. University of Wisconsin-Parkside Chancellor Debbie Ford wrote that her school will apologize to its campus community. University of Wisconsin-Superior Chancellor Renee Wachter recognized “the difficult choice that our students and faculty of Jewish faith may experience as a result of this scheduling issue.” Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank wrote in her letter, “I deeply regret this conflict exists.”
Blank said that to accommodate the conflict, her school “moved up move-in to the residence halls by two days and added extra programming for freshman who will now be in town longer before school starts.” Blank added that “we have moved as many activities as possible.”
Blank also noted the creation of a “Working Group on the Academic Calendar and Accommodations to help ensure that a conflict like the one that we face this fall semester does not happen again.”
All schools said they are communicating with their communities about the need for the accommodation of students who will be observing Rosh Hashanah.
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which has a campus Jewish population that is likely second only to Madison, did not have the start-of-school date conflict and it was not asked to issue a plan by letter.
Jewish community response
“I’m grateful to Chancellor Blank for appointing a task force to examine the many issues related to holiday observance,” said Madison Hillel CEO and President Greg Steinberger. “We look forward to working with the administration to make changes to ensure this does not happen again.”
Reached for comment, two Jewish community organizations again expressed disappointment in the scheduling conflict and stated a preference for the UW System to take the lead to prevent future problems.
“While we appreciate that UW System leadership asked the six campuses to create and share their plans to accommodate the religious requirements of their students this fall, we remain disappointed that they were unable or unwilling to accommodate a legitimate religious request to change the start dates of the schools,” said Michael Blumenfeld of the Wisconsin Jewish Conference and Kai Gardner Mishlove, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Milwaukee Jewish Federation, in a joint statement.
“Although we expect individual campuses to develop plans to avoid these types of conflicts in the future, we continue to believe that the long-term solution rests with the UW System and Board of Regents. We look forward to working with the UW System and Board of Regents on campus policies relating to religious and ethnic diversity for faculty, staff and students.”
The Milwaukee Jewish Federation has made resources available for parents, faculty and staff related to the university system’s date conflict, at MilwaukeeJewish.org/UWStartDate.