The UW-Madison Faculty Senate apologized on Monday for scheduling the first day of classes this year on a major Jewish holiday and changed its calendar approval process in an attempt to avoid similar scheduling conflicts in the future.
Jewish groups noticed in late 2020 that the first day of fall classes at UW-Madison fell on Rosh Hashanah, one of the holiest holidays of the Jewish New Year. Five other University of Wisconsin System campuses had similar scheduling conflicts.
The Faculty Senate at UW-Madison represents the more than 2,300 professors on campus and signs off on the academic calendars brought to them by administrators, typically years in advance.
“I’d say this was a collective failing,” Professor Chad Goldberg, who is Jewish, said at the Faculty Senate meeting on Monday.
UW Hillel and the Wisconsin Jewish Conference throughout the first half of 2021 asked the campuses to change the start date. Other religious groups — such as the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, Islamic Community of Madison Area and the Wisconsin Council of Churches — repeated those calls.
UW-Madison leaders said repeatedly that it was too late to change the calendar, citing its cascading effect on a wide variety of university operations, such as course schedules and financial aid awards. The stance appears to conflict with the System’s own attempt to change the 2020-21 calendar in the summer of 2020 for COVID-19 reasons, far closer to the start of classes than when Jewish leaders asked UW-Madison to change the date in early 2021.
Some campuses made modifications, such as UW-Madison changing the dates of dorm move-in and convocation, but no university moved their start date.
The Faculty Senate unanimously voted to echo the chancellor’s apology. It also approved adding another layer of review to its calendar approval process. Calendars coming up for a vote must now first be reviewed by various university offices, including the provost’s office, for religious observances.
Exactly what the review process will entail is still being worked out, said Eric Sandgren, who leads the Faculty Senate. He plans to bring more details to the body in the spring.
UW Hillel CEO and president Greg Steinberger said he was pleased to see some work addressing calendar conflicts and to hear an apology on the part of professors. But he said UW-Madison still has a ways to go in accommodating religious observances compared to peer schools, mentioning two individuals who came to him with problems in the past couple of weeks.
“We continue to look for specific changes by the administration to ensure the university is accountable and properly trains its various units on the rights of all students and staff as it relates to religious observances,” he said.