Verbum Ultimum: Inconsistent Accommodations

by THE DARTMOUTH EDITORIAL BOARD | 5/21/15 8:33pm

On May 20, the College confirmed that it moved the start date of the upcoming fall term to Sept. 16 from Sept. 14 to avoid overlap with the Jewish holiday Rosh Hashanah. To compensate, two special days of Saturday classes have been added to the fall term calendar. We cannot find fault with the College’s apparent motive of taking the religious obligations of students and faculty into consideration. Especially in light of Dartmouth’s history of institutional anti-Semitism, that the College will ensure that its Jewish students can celebrate an important holiday in their calendar and still attend the first day of class indicates that it has embraced a commitment to inclusivity and diversity rather than mere tolerance.

Yet, we must also bear in mind the broader implications for the role of religion in academic life. The way in which the College made this adjustment — rather than the rationale — strikes us as a rash and underhanded. We question why the College has departed from its standard practice of accommodating absences for religious holidays on an individual, as-needed basis — particularly if the College knew in advance that these adjustments could only be counterbalanced by Saturday classes. Good intentions cannot excuse that this move and the message it sends were not well thought out.

A major issue is that the College has now set a precedent of changing the calendar for religious holidays. To fail to accord other religious communities on campus the same accommodation would indicate a concerning bias in the College’s holiday selection. The significance of Rosh Hashanah cannot provide any rigorous sort of benchmark for College’s scheduling choices. The College holds regular classes on the important Christian holiday Good Friday, and also does not make changes for the Islamic observance of Ramadan, which entails fasting during daylight hours for one lunar month — putting Muslim students at odds with Dartmouth Dining Service operating hours. Beyond the Abrahamic faiths, there are numerous important holidays, like Holi or Vesak, that students of various faiths must celebrate alongside their Dartmouth lives.

We are also concerned by the lack of transparency surrounding this calendar adjustment. The change was posted to the registrar’s website months ago, yet we only learned of the reasoning for it this week. At a time when many students have ambivalent feelings toward administrators, we would expect the College to be forthright about its decisions. Yet this decision, essentially an ad hoc fix to a calendar conflict brought to administrators’ attention, was done quietly, with no effort to alert students. All of this contributes to the sense that this change has been foisted upon students, which may undermine the basic premise of the schedule change — that the College can afford to delay fall term by two days if it recoups the lost time through Saturday classes. But this is an imprudent solution if it engenders student resentment and encourages absences. An unintended consequence, then, may be elevated mistrust of administrators.

Students and faculty should be able to take absences for religious reasons when required. While the original fall term start date may have caused scheduling difficulties for Jewish students, the College should have thought about this conflict before it drafted the 2015-2016 academic calendar, rather than tacking on Saturday classes to repair its oversight. Accommodating the religious holiday of one community must also respect the time and needs of students unaffiliated with that faith. More importantly, the College should not be in the business of arbitrating the merits of religious holidays.

Unfortunately, we are stuck with the current situation — we either keep the total number of course hours using Saturday classes that disrupt student extracurriculars and their deserved weekend rest, lose course hours by canceling Saturday classes or reschedule them in equally — if not more — disruptive weeknight evening time blocks, as proposed by the Student Assembly. It is deeply regrettable that the College’s desire to heed religious needs has been marred by its habit of circumventing widespread student input and delivering its decisions as facts.