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Chancellor message: Start of fall classes and Rosh Hashana

July 20, 2021

This message covers:

  • Conflict between the first day of fall classes and Rosh Hashana
  • Actions being taken
  • Resources for faculty, staff and students

Dear faculty and staff,

One of the ways UW–Madison strives to be welcoming and inclusive is by being mindful of religious observances by the many different faiths represented on campus and, to the fullest extent possible, avoiding scheduling major campus events on those dates.

This year, unfortunately, the first day of classes is scheduled to occur on the second day of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year and one of Judaism’s holiest holidays. This is an overlap which we should have identified when schedules were being set.  Our process didn’t work in this instance and for that I’m deeply sorry. The first day of classes is a significant occasion and especially so this year as we return to in-person instruction – after last year, many students want the excitement and sense of belonging that comes with the first day of classes. I recognize that the scheduling conflict and our failure to anticipate it when the calendar was adopted by the Faculty Senate in 2019 has distressed many Jewish students, their families, faculty, and staff, particularly at a time of increased antisemitic violence and harassment across the U.S.  This is a moment when it’s critical to show, through our words and actions, that we are committed to the safety and well-being of Jewish members of our community.

Our ability to correct this oversight with the most ideal solution – changing the class start date – is not possible, due to the constraints we face on start/end dates as well as the many links between the calendar and other administrative actions that were already taken. I very much regret this and I have worked to ensure we are taking every action we can to reduce the impact of the conflict.

This includes:

  • Rescheduling all departmental welcome events (typically planned for Tuesday before classes start) to September 3. These events should be avoided beginning the evening of September 6 through September 8.
  • Rescheduling Convocation for first-year students from Tuesday, September 7 (the first day of Rosh Hashana), to Friday, September 3.
  • Ensuring signature events for Wisconsin Welcome (our Welcome Week) do not conflict with other events planned for the holiday.

In accord with university policy, I am asking department chairs and supervisors to extend flexibility to instructors and other employees to support their observance of the holiday. Instructors who plan to observe the holiday but are scheduled to teach on September 8 may hold an asynchronous class session or follow their department’s standard practice for teaching conflicts.

We have previously communicated with instructors about how they can support observant students, reminding them that, under state law, any student with a conflict between an academic requirement and a religious observance must be given an alternative for meeting the academic requirement. No affected student should be penalized for their absence from class on September 8.

We are also asking that instructors plan ahead and exercise flexibility with students through  the following actions:

  • Post a notification in Canvas or email students directly before the start of the semester to highlight this conflict, our campus religious observance policy and plans to offer flexibility.
  • Make any first day materials (perhaps including a brief welcome video) available digitally, via email or Canvas.
  • Offer an asynchronous option for classes meeting on September 8.
  • Offer opportunities to meet with students who are not able to attend the first day — e.g., regular or extra office hours, and/or welcoming activities on the second day of class.
  • Avoid scheduling meetings or events with student groups on the first day of classes.
  • Include information about the religious observances policy on syllabi.

We are taking steps to prevent scheduling major campus events that conflict with significant religious observances of all faiths from happening in the future. A working group is reviewing the academic calendar in future years to identify potential conflicts well in advance so that we can plan accordingly.  This group is also charged with identifying ways to more effectively communicate our expectations to both instructors and students about how to accommodate religious conflicts.  We welcome continued conversation about how to move forward in supporting members of all faith groups.

Rebecca M. Blank