Students express concern over academic accommodations for religious holidays
Several religious Yalies pointed to inconsistencies in the University’s accommodations for religious holidays, especially pointing to variance among deans.
Yale Daily News
Zaharaa Altwaij ’25 had an exam at 10:30 a.m. last April, the morning after Laylat al-Qadr — the holiest night in the Islamic calendar — which involves staying up until dawn to worship.
Altwaij, who is Muslim, met with her residential college’s interim dean to request to take the exam on Monday instead. The extension was granted, but her dean said that the accommodation would only be available to her as a first-year student because she was not “accustomed to the workload.” The dean explained Altwaij should be prepared to not get extensions for similar circumstances in the future. Altwaij said she left the meeting “appalled.”
“I can’t imagine a world where I would be able to stay up all night and still be expected to take an exam the next morning,” Altwaij told the News.
Students have long faced struggles balancing academics with observing religious holidays. Dean of Yale College Pericles Lewis told the News that he is frequently asked about adding more holidays, but is reluctant to change the calendar due to the need to retain a certain number of class days and enough time for instruction.
Maayan Schoen ’23, who is Jewish, said that challenges balancing academics and religious holidays not only lead to additional stress in working through the logistics of getting accommodations, but also compound the pileup of work around holidays, impacting students’ relationship to their faith.
“The holidays are just a time that show to them, it is too difficult to maintain my religious observance in college,” Schoen said. “A time that they have to start actually doing work over the holidays and [that is] a total breach of their observance in a way that has a long term impact on their relationship to Judaism.”
This past fall, Schoen said she needed to miss seven days of school to observe Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, all before October break. Schoen said that this can sound “really extreme” for a professor to hear, and that her instructors rarely understand that she cannot work on any school assignments during those days. Professors also do not often recognize that Jewish holidays typically start the night before, causing her to have even more days dedicated to religious observance.
“There have been instances where I was shopping a class last year. I wrote to them to get a feel for how accommodating they were going to be with me missing for Rosh Hashanah, and if they sound like a jerk, I did not take that class,” Schoen said.
The University’s policy for religious accommodations states that students who cannot attend class should reach out to their instructor directly with “as much notice as possible,” and the student can work with the instructor to determine a schedule for missed work.
Another avenue that many students pursue to extend the deadline for assignments are Dean’s Extensions, a form signed by a residential college dean that allows for postponement of work during the semester previously known as a Dean’s Excuse.
Dean’s Extensions may only be used in circumstances including incapacitating illness or condition of any kind, death of a family member, a “comparable” emergency, observance of religious holy days or participation in varsity intercollegiate athletic events.
Senior Associate Dean of Strategic Initiatives and Communications Paul McKinley DRA ’96 wrote to the News that students who seek extensions on assignments can approach professors, but they need to request a Dean’s Extension if the instructor requires it, which would be specified on their syllabus.
Students can contact their professors directly, and Dean’s Extensions apply only to term-time assignments, not attendance.
McKinley told the News that Dean’s Extensions can be helpful because once the student contacts their dean, their dean can reach out to all of their professors on behalf of them to request accommodations for assignments for a certain date. However, they cannot be used for absences which need to be discussed with professors.
“As a faculty member, even before I was dean, you get a reminder in early September of all the upcoming holidays,” Lewis said. “I think my sense is the system works reasonably well.”
Sanya Abbasey ’25, cultural and religious director for the Yale College Council, wrote to the News that extensions may not “fully support” students that are observing religious holidays due to the residual pressure to go to class. Abbasey said she is not aware of any YCC efforts with the issue, but they are planning to write a policy proposal in the future.
In terms of the issue of work piling up, Abbasey said the YCC is working closely with the Chaplain’s Office to “begin to tackle” this issue.
The calendar of religious holidays for this school year can be found here.