It’s rare that I find myself in agreement with a decision made by Stony Brook University’s administration, rarer still that I find myself vocally defending that decision. But for the last week, my Twitter feed and Google Alerts for Stony Brook have been ablaze with the manufactured outrage of conservatives who are furious—FURIOUS!—that a university many of them have never heard of has the audacity to rearrange their academic calendar.
First, the issue at hand: for years, Stony Brook has shaped its breaks around the Jewish and Christian holidays. This means very little for most of the year, save for one week in September (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) and one week in April (Passover and Easter). Instead of taking off during a federal holiday (Columbus Day in the fall) or the midway point of the Spring semester (usually mid-March) as most universities do, Stony Brook instead has relied on religious holidays to dictate breaks.
That practice is coming to an end during the next school year. And conservatives are in a tizzy, stepping all over each other to out-denounce Stony Brook as anti-religion or something. So what’s the administration supposedly guilty of? According to people like Rush Limbaugh and Steve Doocy of the Fox News
comedy hour news program Fox and Friends last week, Stony Brook is failing to appropriately elevate Christianity (and Judaism) over other religions.
Charlie Robbins, a good man and in my experience a fair arbiter of what’s right and wrong, said on the same Fox show earlier in the week that Stony Brook wants to make sure they treat all religions equally, to give students who worship Allah or Buddha or Vishnu the same treatment as those who worship Jesus, Adonai or, simply, God. Naturally, for a party that elects people who view Islam as a cult, that’s too much equality for them to bear.
I should mention here that I myself am Jewish. I was raised in a religious house, attended Shabbat services every Saturday through high school, and made regular use of Rosh Hashanah breaks to return to my home congregation to worship and reconnect with old friends. And if I honestly felt Stony Brook’s decision was in any way an attack on religious practice, I would be critical of the move as well. But as the administration has explained repeatedly, students who wish to practice their religion remain free to do so, and no tests or papers are to be assigned during the holidays.
To nobody’s surprise, however, Fox News pivoted to their wheelhouse: making stuff up in an attempt to get their most rabid viewers salivating. Fox News invited a student onto the show to discuss his outrage towards the university.
“If I knew going in that if my kid went to Stony Brook and they’d have to go to class on Good Friday, I’d suggest they go to another school,” announced Steve Doocy to his guest, who, as a Jewish student, probably cares very little about what he does on Good Friday. Setting aside the fact that keeping Steve Doocy away from campus is just added incentive, he neglected to mention that the overwhelming majority of universities in the country don’t have Good Friday off, or any other religious holiday for that matter. And you’d be hard pressed to find non-denominational schools outside of the SUNY system that follow Stony Brook’s policy.
I can sympathize with those who are upset over the decision. The convenience of having time off during the holidays is hard to let go of. But if we’re being honest about the situation, and if we were to start from scratch, it’s hard to fathom a situation in which a relatively small Jewish population is given a pretty large concession from a public university while students of other faiths—Christianity and, by some estimates, Islam are both observed more widely than Judaism at Stony Brook—are not. And at an institution of higher education, especially one the size of Stony Brook, accommodating every religion is impractical.
If there is to be criticism of the actions taken by the university, it should focus on the administration’s trademark unilateralism that has come to define virtually all decisions made during President Stanley’s still-young tenure. That there was no communication about this decision with students or faculty should no longer come as a surprise to those who have watched Stony Brook run head first into entirely preventable public relations disasters for the last two years. But in a refreshing change of pace, the university has finally exercised its authority in pursuit of an end that, albeit only partially, justified the means. A decision made in the name of religious tolerance, or tolerance of any kind, is commendable. And I think Holy Scripture would have my back on that one, too.