September 27, 2011

Faith in Cornell

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This week I will join many Cornellians in celebrating Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Since Cornell doesn’t officially recognize religious holidays, observing them brings fresh, unique challenges each year: missed lectures, rescheduled prelims and job obligations, to name a few. Many members of the Cornell community, myself included, find difficulty balancing everyday and religious commitments during holidays. While faith-based organizations serve as valuable resources, the lack of a central University policy, protocol or directive for dealing with religious holidays is a troubling source of confusion, frustration and stress for students and faculty alike. A Caring Community must officially accommodate those who observe important religious holidays and provide information to all Cornellians regarding their occurrence and significance.I never had any difficulty observing the Jewish High Holy Days until coming to Cornell. I’m not particularly observant, but I do attend services on major holidays and take part in ceremonial meals and rituals. My public high school on Long Island was closed on major Jewish holidays. I never had to worry about missing work, classes or club meetings. Attending services and meals was never a question, because it was the norm; my opportunity cost was a few hours of sleep and a SportsCenter rebroadcast. I was naïve and oblivious to the fact that, for the vast majority of Americans, these were completely typical days. My first semester at Cornell, then, was a cruel awakening.The University’s policy on religious holidays is vague and poorly publicized. A statement on the website of the University Registrar simply makes students aware of a New York State Education Law mandating “that faculty make available an opportunity to make up any examination missed because of religious beliefs.” There is no mention of a time frame for makeup exams, notification procedure or any other potential issues, rather simply a request to “to notify the instructor by the end of the first full week of classes.” The University Dean of Faculty offers more information, such as a list of holidays from Cornell United Religious Work, but does little to offer definitive policy or procedure. The Statement from the Dean of Faculty repeats the law, notes an obligation to comply with state laws, and then states “the language of the law is vague, and particular situations may need interpretation.” No such interpretation is provided; instead, faculty members with questions are urged to call the office or CURW. The statement closes by thanking faculty for cooperating with this “responsibility.”My professors have thus far reasonably accommodated my observance of the Jewish High Holy Days, but I still face new challenges every year. My freshman year, I had an exam on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year. I was asked to make up the exam online, which presented an ethical dilemma (I did not cheat, but other students taking the online make-up did; this was ironic considering they were allegedly taking the online exam in order to observe the Day of Atonement). In other cases, I was excused from lecture but still missed valuable material that would have been hard to learn without the help of friends in the class. Making the decision to miss class wasn’t easy, and it didn’t help that I had no official guidance. Rarely have my classes been cancelled or the holidays explicitly mentioned — and the professors of those courses were largely Jewish. Clearly, the ways in which professors accommodate religious holidays is largely at their discretion and varies greatly, which should be expected and is not a personal point of contention. But there should be a clearer standard for accommodation, and efforts should be made to recognize and reach out to students experiencing such conflicts.I’d like to think that accommodating a student’s faith should be seen as more than a legal responsibility, as the University currently treats it. By creating a standard for allowing observance and publicizing information about religious holidays, Cornell would have an opportunity to celebrate the diversity of our community. Cornell is unique amongst its Ivy League peers in that it was founded as a secular institution. The University’s historical inclusiveness is reflected in our motto, the words of Ezra Cornell: “I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.” It naturally follows that the University should ensure adequate opportunities for those observing major religious holidays, and not just legally. In acting to protect religious groups, Cornell would be continuing to demonstrate its respect and appreciation for diverse traditions.Additionally, since religious and academic conflicts can be a major stressor for students, creating a coherent policy would inherently be an extension of the Caring Community initiatives. No student should be made to feel as if observing a major religious holiday will significantly interfere with his or her studies, or that the decision between observance and class is zero-sum. Through trial and error, I’ve found its very possible to honor both academic obligations and religious traditions. If the University were more proactive in publicizing information, faculty members would feel less compelled to make difficult adjustments, and students would feel more welcomed and less intimidated. I certainly would be more comfortable if an official policy existed.In formulating such a policy to more effectively accommodate religious holidays, Cornell can look to peer institutions. The University of Pennsylvania, for example, has a policy that outlines certain religious holidays on which “no examinations may be given and no assigned work may be required” and also recognizes other holidays when students “will not be required to attend classes or take examinations … and faculty must provide reasonable opportunities … to make up missed work and examinations.” Duke University, in addition to providing a list of holidays to the entire community, has a formal procedure for students to notify all professors of their observance.Cornell should ultimately develop a religious holiday policy in line with peer institutions that lives up to both its academic mission and Caring Community initiatives. Religious observance should not be treated merely as a legal right, but rather as an opportunity to spread awareness of our diverse and unique community. Only through the creation of an official University policy, possibly at the urging of the Student Assembly, will students and faculty truly be at ease with observing holidays and honoring observance. In wishing the entire Cornell community l’shana tova umetukah, for a good and sweet year, I implore all Cornellians to celebrate each other’s faiths and accommodate each other as best as possible, not because of state law but because of our common community.   Jon Weinberg is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at jweinberg@cornellsun.com. In Focus appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Jon Weinberg