Religious holidays may conflict with classes

BY DAVID GREEN | JULY 13, 2009 7:15 AM

UI graduate teaching assistant John Rost requested July 9 off for the Martyrdom of the Bab, a Baha’I Holy Day. He had no trouble getting accommodations.

“I just let my TA know that I wasn’t going to make it to class that day,” said Rost, the spokesman and principal representative of the Baha’i Campus Association. “I’m also a TA myself, and I’ve been able to get people to sub for me really easily.”

However, things aren’t always so simple and easy when holidays clash with academics. Decisions about which days to take off aren’t made lightly nor quickly, said Registrar Larry Lockwood.

“A number of years ago, [the students] asked for Thanksgiving week off, and it ultimately passed,” he said. “That took about a year and a half.”

And things get more controversial where religious matters are concerned. For instance, New York City officials debated whether to add two Muslim holy days to the public-school holiday calendar.

Opponents said that there need to be more Muslim students there for a public-school holiday to be viable.

Lockwood said he has noticed no trend toward having more or fewer total days off over the years despite increasing numbers of international student enrollment: the UI has certification needs and policies to consider.

Even with more students enrolling online — erasing the need for days off — the holiday system has not seen change.

“Institutions [like the UI] are fairly unchanging [in these regards],” Lockwood said.

Jennifer Modestou, the director of Equal Opportunity and Diversity, most concerns that have been brought to her office aren’t about holidays but other campus events.

The majority of issues arise from scheduling major university lectures or special events on campus on major holy days of the Jewish faith, as well as other faith groups, Modestou said.

However, she noted, the university does send an annual policy notice to all faculty and staff informing them of various resources to help those who schedule examinations and special events.

According to UI policy, students who notify their instructors of a religious holy day conflict in a timely manner shall be excused from class. But for students such as Rost, sometimes school comes first.

“Nobody forces us to go to class, but there are six [Baha’i] holy days from the middle of March to May, give or take, and no one can afford to take that time off,” he said.

After all, Lockwood said it’s worth showing up to class. Faculty members who teach online classes have noted the importance of instructor-student interaction, such as asking questions right away.

“I think there is value in attending an institution [physically],” Lockwood said.

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