According to Leonard Scott, University of Michigan religious psychological counselor, this is seldom a problem with Christian students because most school systems operate on calendars that have traditionally followed Christian schedules. But for Jews, Muslims, Hindus and many others whose holidays do not coincide with the Christian calendar, this is a perennial problem.
Anthony Scaglione, U-M senior and chair of Hillel, a U-M campus center for Jewish students, decided to take action and convince the University to administer a new, tougher policy on religious-academic conflicts.
As a participant in Leadership 2017, a summer internship program for student leaders on campus, Scaglione made his prime project drafting a new policy for the University. The internship placed him in daily contact with high-ranking University administrators, other student leaders and faculty members, providing a key position for pushing his idea.
"The University talks about the value of religion but sometimes it's difficult to practice that faith if you're out of the Christian mainstream," said Scaglione.
As a Jewish student, Scaglione knew all too well that students faced the burden of getting excused from class and there were no guarantees. "If a test is happening in class on the same day as a religious holiday, students observing that holiday can be put at a serious disadvantage."
The result of his work in Leadership 2017 is a new University policy on religious academic conflicts approved by the offices of the Provost and Vice President for Student Affairs.
The policy, which articulates both the rights of students and of faculty, was adopted in fall 1996. It was distributed to all U-M faculty and staff along with a list of religious holidays of many major religions. The policy was also sent to students to inform them of their rights.
"A lot of students didn't know they had rights and students who don't feel capable or empowered to stand up for their rights won't without backing; that's how this policy helps them," said Scaglione.
In previous years, the University distributed a statement about religious observances, but, Scaglione contends, the wording was weak and the timing was bad. The statement was generally issued during the summer after professors had already written syllabi and schedules for fall classes.
Scaglione mentioned an incident when an exam for a large chemistry class was scheduled on the night of Yom Kippur. The professor expressed doubt when a number of students said they couldn't take the exam.
"The problem is the professor should have known before that there was a major holiday on the night of the exam. These two events should not have overlapped," said Scaglione.
The new policy states that in order to avoid unintentional academic penalties for missing class, students are expected to give faculty reasonable notice of when their holidays require them to be absent. Absence from class does not excuse students from completing missed work, and students are expected to arrange with faculty agreeable deadlines for making up missed work.
Scott and Scaglione agree that universities around the country need this sort of policy for religious sensitivity.