University of Wisconsin System schools have been asked to consult a central calendar and minimize conflicts with major religious holidays, under a new policy adopted in the wake of a conflict between Rosh Hashanah and the first day of school.
The new University of Wisconsin System policy, approved Nov. 9, 2022, comes after two years of discussion between Jewish groups and university officials.
“The new policy is an important step as it addresses, especially, the big issue that we had with scheduling classes on the second day of Rosh Hashanah in 2021,” said Andrea Bernstein, associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Milwaukee Jewish Federation. “It’s an attempt to bring more clarity.”
How we got here
The conversation started several months before Rosh Hashanah 2021, when Greg Steinberger, president and CEO of Madison Hillel, raised the alarm about a conflict between the High Holy Days and the first day of school. Academic officials responded to Jewish community requests for rescheduling with regret but added that it was too late to make a change, even months in advance.
Back in 2021, Rosh Hashanah’s second day was the first day of class for University of Wisconsin – Madison’s fall semester. Several other schools in the state system also scheduled the first day of fall classes for the second day of Rosh Hashanah, though Madison is the only school with an estimated 13% Jewish undergraduate population. It’s a quirk of the educational system that the nation sends its Jewish students to Madison, a Big Ten research university with a national academic reputation, but when they get here it’s Wisconsin’s smaller Jewish community that works to help them navigate some of their challenges.
The date conflict came and went, and discussions among university officials and Jewish groups continued to a new topic: What should be done going forward?
Check the calendar
“The University of Wisconsin System, it has 14 campuses, and they all have a chancellor,” said Michael Blumenfeld, executive director, Wisconsin Jewish Conference. “It’s a large, complex system.” That reality makes getting a new system-wide policy approved an accomplishment, he said.
“We do feel this is very significant, just as they do,” Blumenfeld said. “Just having the policy on this topic elevates it; it elevates in terms of visibility and as a priority. And the system is saying to the campuses, both internally and externally, this is an important issue, this is something we need to work on that we need to be better about.”
Under the new policy, the UW System is to keep a calendar, with religious dates, and the schools are to try to abide by it. The UW System’s policy holds that the UW System Administration will provide information to campuses on religious observances, not just for Judaism but for other faiths too, five years in advance. Individual schools are then to “attempt to minimize, whenever reasonably practicable, conflicts with major religious holidays,” according to the new policy.
“UW System listened to concerns related to the academic calendar and addressed them accordingly,” said Mark Pitsch, spokesman for the UW-System.
Still, there was an effort to raise awareness of the new policy and to drive the point home. An alliance of Wisconsin Jewish and non-Jewish groups sent a letter to the head of the UW-System and individual campuses on Nov. 9, in support of the policy.
“We are writing in support of the adoption of a UW System Administrative Policy regarding the Academic Year,” read the letter, organized with work from the JCRC, the Wisconsin Jewish Conference and others. “As this policy addresses the challenges that minority religious communities have experienced when campus and academic schedules conflict with significant holidays, it is one important step towards creating fully inclusive campus environments in our UW System.”
Signatories included various Wisconsin rabbis and Jewish community advocates, but also people from outside the Jewish community, including Bishop Paul Erickson, Greater Milwaukee Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; Ahmed J. Quereshi, Interim executive director, Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee; and Othman M. Atta, executive director, Islamic Society of Milwaukee, among others.
“We are happy with the policy,” Steinberger said. “We think that it is a reasonable, appropriate reminder, that elevates …. and we’re really happy that the system is bringing resources to the table.”
Designated office, resources
Schools are now asked to make related resources available. They are also to designate an administrator who can help with “scheduling accommodations,” under the new UW System policy.
“Where does the student go? Where does staff go when there are issues?” Blumenfeld asked rhetorically. “The policy reinforces that there needs to be a place, a clearly stated individual office, where people know they can go, if they’ve got issues or just a question about the policies.”
“That’s important,” he said.
Bernstein foresees this relating, for example, to “a test that was scheduled, or an assignment that’s due.” Or think in terms of a welcome dinner for teaching assistants or a staff meeting for a department.
The designated adminstrator could also be a resource for matters related to antisemitism.
The next step, Steinberger said, is to pay attention to implementation and who will be the designated administrators.
Opposition to the plan
Support for the new policy was not universal. Betsy Morgan, provost at University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, said before the new policy was approved that she thought it “misguided and will lead to more concerns than it will alleviate.” She said she thinks it’s important that students’ education not be compromised for their religious beliefs. She said she believes that students who observe work-restricted religious holy days must be allowed to do so without jeopardizing their academic standing in any course.
But she added, in an October comment on a draft, that there are too many religions in the world to potentially attend to all of them; a requirement to “minimize conflicts” lacks clarity; partial weeks “creates havoc” for lab sciences; and campuses already have offices where students can go to discuss policies.
“We are already hamstrung in creating good calendars by starting after Sept. 1,” Morgan added, alluding to the state law that does not allow school to start before September.
The new policy is a moment of success, but it is not the end of the road, according to the JCRC.
“One of the most important things from a JCRC perspective, is that we establish and develop those relationships where we can be consulted when needed, so that when an incident happens, and there needs to be a response, they can help,” Bernstein said. “We can help gauge how different language or different responses might land for the Jewish community and to increase their understanding of the impact of different incidents ….”