Illustration by Allison Hernandez
It’s the first day of the quarter and your professor has just handed out copies of her syllabus and course schedule. Scanning down the list of assignments, quizzes and exams, you pencil them into your calendar as the professor reads the course description aloud. Suddenly, you realize that an exam has been scheduled for a Friday night. As a Shabbat-observant student, you hope that the professor will be amenable to giving you an alternate test time, but what if she’s not? What will you do?
College life brings different experiences and interactions with different people, and in coming to UCLA from a Torah-observant community, I did not expect to find many Shabbat-observant classmates or professors. I did, however, expect to find a community that would respect my religion and beliefs, or at least my constitutional right to them.
In my first quarter at UCLA, I carefully selected classes that did not have Saturday finals to avoid having to deal with rearranging finals schedules. However, as I double-checked my class schedule before classes had even started, I noticed that the final day for an introductory calculus class had been changed from a weekday to Saturday. I immediately sent the professor several emails, one of which he responded to with the message that the class had “always had a Saturday final and that the weekday final date had been an error on behalf of the Registrar’s Office.” Subsequent emails were ignored. When I met with him in-person during the first week of classes, he repeated the message and advised me to drop the class.
After a week and a half of repeated messages to various UCLA administrative bodies, he reluctantly agreed to let me take the final on Friday night. When I explained that Friday night was no better for me, he agreed to let me take it no earlier than three and a quarter hours before sunset on Friday. This meant that I would have to make arrangements to stay at UCLA over Shabbat (I’m a commuter) and then run — literally — from his office to the nearby apartments within about ten minutes so that I could dump my belongings on the floor, since they can’t halachically be moved on Shabbat. Forget about preparing for Shabbat or arriving in a calm state of mind — I’d be scampering across campus, fresh out of breath and preoccupied with a difficult final. Eventually, I took his original advice and dropped the class. It wasn’t a particularly auspicious beginning to my UCLA career.
More recently, in a twice-weekly lab class, I attempted to make arrangements for missing class during the first and last days of Sukkot. The professor was very understanding. “The second lab might be a problem,” he said, “because it will be an entirely self-contained lab. We will have to discuss that next week. The first lab is not a problem, since it is a continuation of the prior lab.” For those who are not familiar with lab class policies, missing one lab session generally means the student cannot pass the class. In this case, attending a section on another day was not an option for me because the Sukkot schedule forced me to miss both days when sections met.
The professor told me that to make up the first lab, I should attend my usual session from nine a.m. to 12 noon and then attend an extra session that afternoon. Because of my class schedule, the only other time I could make was from six to nine p.m., which meant about nine hours of class for me within a 12-hour period. Since each lab session had a pre-lab assignment and a post-lab analysis (each of which typically requires two to four hours of work), I was required to turn in both pre-labs before my usual lab session and then turn in both post-labs before Sukkot. I had about four days’ notice (including Shabbat, when I couldn’t work on the assignments) for the pre-lab work and less than a day — extended to about a day and third — between the completion of my six-hour lab day and the time by which I had to turn in the post-labs. With additional make-up work for my other classes, on top of regular schoolwork and studying, I managed to complete the post-labs in time, albeit by getting about five hours of sleep during the fifty-odd hours prior to Sukkot. However, the thought of repeating the ordeal for the last days of Sukkot, especially given the extreme difficulty of making up the second missed session (and the fact that the class was not one of my major requirements), was unbearable, and I dropped this class as well.
Even when professors grant reasonable accommodations, they might do so with a condescending or demeaning attitude. Naomi Esserman, a third-year Electrical Engineering major, related to me a time when she had a lab session scheduled to be during Sukkot. While the professor accommodated her, he was disgruntled by the fact that the academic calendar had been pushed back by a week due to Rosh Hashanah and, in addition to saying unpleasant comments, he accused Esserman of “making up the holiday.”
However, Esserman pointed out that the unpleasant experience was an isolated occurrence, as all of her other experiences approaching professors have been positive. “They always moved an exam for me; they would let me come into their offices and take it whenever it worked in my schedule,” she said. Instead of Saturday finals, she’s taken them Saturday night or even on Friday or Sunday. “I’ve never actually been stuck in a situation where I did have an exam and I couldn’t get out of it,” she said. “For the most part, it wasn’t even a struggle: professors were incredibly, incredibly accommodating.”
Gil Bar-Or, a second-year Computer Science major, has had similar experience. “It maybe helped that both times [when exam schedules and Shabbat observance conflicted], the professors were Jewish, so they also understood,” he said, smiling. “But they just scheduled it so that I took it the day before. Usually, there were also other people who had reasons for why they couldn’t come. It worked out pretty well.” Bar-Or does acknowledge that students might be discouraged from asking for religious accommodations for time conflicts when professors’ syllabi state that no make-up exams or labs will be given under any circumstances other than extreme medical emergency. Since Shabbat observance does not qualify as such, he is concerned that some students might be too intimidated by the professor to ask for accommodations. As such, a simple method of facilitating religious accommodations could be to simply state that make-up exams or labs will only be given in case of medical emergency or other such needs.
Thankfully, the few awful experiences aside, most of my own professors have also been accommodating. Generally, I am advised to get notes from classmates, watch the podcast (if applicable), and attend office hours. On one occasion, when a math exam was scheduled for the day after Passover, when I would not have been able to study (due to the prohibition against writing on the holiday), the professor allowed me to take the exam two days later. He was willing to help me out, even when he was probably not required to, and I will always be grateful for that.
Legal and Constitutional Compliance?
However, accommodations are not and should not be subject to the whims and sensitivities of professors. Freedom of religion and religious practice is guaranteed under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and has been enforced in matters ranging from the recitation of prayers stressing Christianity in open town council meetings (Town of Greece v. Galloway ), to ritual use of peyote in the Native American Church (American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978). While the First Amendment does not apply to all entities or actions, such as private ones, other legal codes and statutes carry their own protection of freedom of religion. For example, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 have historically been enforced by the U.S. Office of Civil Rights to protect students’ rights to religious freedom. The California Constitution states that “[f]ree exercise and enjoyment of religion without discrimination or preference are guaranteed” (Article 1, Section 4).
Furthermore, specifically regarding the UC schools and religious accommodations, the California Education Code (Section 92640), states that “[t]he Regents of the University of California shall develop policies and procedures to ensure that each campus of the university […] permits any student […] to undergo [a] test or examination to do so, without penalty, at a time when that activity would not violate the student’s religious creed…” This directly places responsibility upon UCLA to accommodate students who need alternate testing dates and/or times for religious reasons. The education code does grant an exception when there is an “undue burden” upon the university in the provision of accommodations. However, it also states that the burden of proof for that is upon the university. It would therefore make sense for UCLA to have set guidelines for professors whose students require religious accommodations, which would not only prevent students from suffering stressful situations in which they might be made uncomfortable because of their beliefs, but would also ensure that UCLA complies with its legal obligations.
However, UCLA does not have any such guidelines. In fact, according to the UCLA Office for Diversity and Faculty Development, there is no mandatory training at all for instructors, even regarding teaching skills. Susan Drange Lee, the office’s director, explained that the office has put out two booklets on “Diversity in the Classroom” and “Creating a Positive Classroom Environment for Diversity,” both of which are available online (faculty.diversity.ucla.edu/resources-for/teaching). “Creating a Positive Classroom Environment for Diversity” states, among sections regarding accommodations for students with disabilities, that, “particular religious holidays and practices may require that some students miss class certain days or receive other accommodations (not provided by the Office for Students with Disabilities). The class syllabus should recognize the need for such accommodations and provide information on how to submit them” (p.6). The booklet also provides several passages regarding classroom diversity that it recommends professors include in their syllabi; included is a paragraph acknowledging the possibility of conflict with religious holidays and requesting students to speak with the professor regarding any concerns or need for accommodations. The office also conducts two workshops for faculty on “Inclusivity in the Classroom” and “Diversity in the Classroom.” However, these resources are all optional, and professors may not even be aware that they exist.
A Real Solution
It is possible that some departments require diversity training and discuss religious accommodations with their faculty. But, as Drange Lee said, “A lot of things here [at UCLA] are not uniform across 80 departments.” While students can approach the UCLA Office of Ombuds Services to mediate conflicts with their professors, no student should need to resort to the Ombuds to enforce compliance with the law.
UCLA has done its students and its faculty a great disservice by not promoting the issue of religious accommodations. Diversity training need not occupy a great deal of time for professors, who, after all, generally lead the busy life of a researcher and have their own personal commitments — but even an hour-long online program would be better than the status quo. While it may not affect even a 10th of the student population, no student should be faced with an unpleasant experience or an uncomfortable choice between belief and academics, on top of the normal stresses and challenges of college and general academic life. By failing to ensure that faculty are equipped to deal with unfamiliar situations that inevitably arise from the diversity of a modern campus climate, UCLA has left its educators to struggle with needs they may never have heard of and which they may feel inadequately prepared to handle. By failing to mandate training for professors, it has left its students’ religious needs to the individual whims of their professors.
In addition to requiring some sort of diversity training, preferably with the inclusion of the ODFD’s passage about religious and other accommodations in syllabi, UCLA should promote general awareness of and respect for students who need religious accommodations, as it promotes awareness of and respect for diversity. Ideally, UCLA would also design a system similar to that of the Office for Students with Disabilities, in which students with a need for religious accommodations could simply fill out an online form indicating when they would need accommodations at the beginning of each academic year. The ODFD could email them out to the students’ professors at the beginning of each applicable quarter, which would grant an official recognition and legitimacy to the request and spare students derogatory comments that they may receive from professors. As per its website claim to be a “pioneer, persevering through impossibility, turning the futile into the attainable,” UCLA can, and should, step up to the plate and turn unpleasant experiences into pioneering change.