University Life Council

Minutes of Meeting

September 19, 2005

LC 31J

 

Present:            Sumedha Tagare, John Murphy, Dan Smith, Ben Shaw, Martin Hildebrand, Bob Yagelski, Bill Reese, Jennifer Stromer-Galley, Candace Merbler, Gwen Moore, and Joan Savitt (Chair)

 

Guest:               John Reilly

 

Meeting commenced at 3:30 p.m.

 

Chair’s Report

 

Chair Savitt welcomed everyone to the meeting and briefly reviewed the three subcommittees (Health, Safety and Well-Being; Residential Life; and Athletics).

 

Chair Savitt reviewed the status of the bill regarding suspending classes for religious holidays. Currently, the bill is in a provisional state – ULC voted on sending a bill to the Senate last spring that recommended not suspending classes for any religious holidays. The bill was withdrawn and ULC was asked to review it. The bill is a high priority for Provost Herbst and the Provost has indicated that she is in favor of suspending classes for religious holidays.

 

John Reilly – University Legal Counsel – Legal Issues Surrounding Suspension of Classes for Religious Holidays  3:40 p.m.

 

John Reilly, Associate Counsel, reviewed the legal issues surrounding suspending classes in recognition of the Muslim holidays. J. Reilly pointed out that there are First Amendment implications and that UAlbany, as a state actor, has its actions evaluated with a three prong test:

 

  1. Action must have an underlying secular purpose.
  2. Action has primary effect of inhibiting/advancing religion (i.e. students or staff being able to observe a holiday is an incidental benefit to being closed on the day of a religious holiday)
  3. Action causes excessive entanglement with religion (i.e. funding issues)

 

Significant discussion surrounded the three prong test.

 

J. Reilly explained that the first prong would require UAlbany to be able to articulate a “secular purpose” such as an administrative inconvenience or disruption – i.e. the University closing down if it was expected that a high percentage of staff and students would be absent because of a religious holidays. Given the demographic make-up of the institution, there are a high percentage of students and staff who would be absent during the Christian or Jewish holidays and therefore this is a permissible secular purpose.

 

Committee members discussed the state law that prohibits penalizing students if they miss class due to religious observations. Chair Savitt asked if there was anything in the law that applied to faculty if they missed time in order to celebrate a religious holiday. J. Reilly said he did not know how the rule might apply to faculty.

 

Committee members agreed that the underlying issue seems to focus on if the University has a set of issues comparable to observance of Christian and Jewish holidays related to observing the Muslim holidays.

 

Dan Smith expressed concern about students not wanting to “self identify” as being Muslim and safety concerns associated with that given the current political climate. D. Smith stated that there may be no way to find out exactly how many students are Muslim and that there is a possibility of it being higher than it actually seems because some students may not want to identify themselves because of the fear of speaking to a professor or being visibly absent from a class on a Muslim holiday. Gwen Moore also agreed that it would be difficult to find out how many Muslim students there actually are on campus. J. Reilly emphasized the need to prove that these concerns are well-founded and not just based on speculation.

 

Bill Reese stated that the decision made last year in regards to not closing for any religious holidays factored in what will enhance/inhibit education and asked if the decision should be made based on educational reasons. Ben Shaw said that if the secular purpose clause focuses on administrative issues then the educational factor should play a large role.

 

Another concern is where to draw the line with recognizing other religions. Committee members suggested printing a list of holidays for all major religions that may affect the campus so as to put faculty and staff on notice. J. Reilly stated that the committee is not arguing for one religion or another. The point is to recognize the administrative concerns related to suspending classes for religious holidays.

 

Jennifer Stromer-Galley stated that there is also a connection to the satisfaction of alumni and their continued support of the University and what alumni will think if the University opts to not suspend classes for any holiday. Committee members agreed that alumni support, student admissions and retention were all key factors and the possibility that students may explore other options for school if classes were not suspended for certain religious holidays.

 

John Murphy reviewed the two proposed bills from last year – one that recognizes the Christian, Jewish and Muslim holidays and another that recognizes no religious holidays and suggested that it may be necessary to introduce a third bill to observe just the Christian and Jewish holidays, based on administrative necessities. Committee members stated that once the temporary bill recognizing the Muslim holidays was expired (in 2007), the University calendars would revert back to observing just the Christian and Jewish holidays.

 

Members also discussed how the Jewish holidays came to be recognized. The exact approval process that led to the suspension of classes for the Jewish holidays is a bit unclear but it was stated that initially only one day was given for the holidays and it has since expanded.

 

Committee members wanted clarification on what their role was in reviewing the suspension of classes for religious holidays given that the bill to not suspend classes for any religious holiday was voted on and passed unanimously last spring by ULC and supported by the Educational Policy Council.

 

Bob Yageleski stated that the ULC didn’t really address the legal implications last year and asked if it would be difficult to justify suspending classes for the Muslin holidays given the three prong test. J. Reilly agreed that from the documentation and rationale he has reviewed, it appears that it is simply about recognizing a major holiday which is not legally defensible.

 

The “slippery slope” issue was brought up and committee members discussed the effect this has on students/staff that fall into the demographic of individuals who recognize no religious holidays. Committee members agreed that John Reilly’s explanation of the legal issues justifies the bill to recognize no religious holidays and it was also pointed out that there is nothing that compels the University to have to close for any religious holidays. It was also pointed out that there could be negative financial implications by eliminating holidays.

 

Candace Merbler asked if there were any other schools, to the knowledge of ULC members, that were addressing the issue of suspending classes for religious holidays and it did not appear that other schools were dealing with this.

 

Committee members felt that the issue is in the number of students who celebrate the Muslim holidays. Members felt that adherence to the current policy is defensible and that it can be difficult to take away a holiday once it has been given. Ben Shaw asked if the initial decision to not recognize any holidays is defensible from a legal perspective and J. Reilly said that it was more a political problem than a legal problem.

 

J. Stromer-Galley stated that by not observing any holidays, the University still runs the risk of disruption because students will not show up for class. However, she also pointed out that she came from an institution with a high Jewish population that did not recognize any holidays and there was no disruption in classes. J. Murphy emphasized retention and graduation and the negative or positive effect of suspending classes for religious holiday might have on that.

 

Chair Savitt established a preliminary action plan and requested that the Committee craft a message for her to bring back to the Senate regarding this issue. A motion was made to take an informal vote regarding the possible three bills:

 

  • Suspend classes for the Christian, Jewish and Muslim holidays (0 votes)
  • Suspend classes for the Christian and Jewish holidays, only (2 votes)
  • Do not suspend classes for any religious holidays (6 votes)

 

John Murphy asked that the ULC think about the practical impact of suspending classes. Committee members also suggested that the University find a way to hold classes and still recognize major religious holidays. It was recommended that these concerns be discussed with the University Planning and Policy Council. Dan Smith expressed additional concern regarding the ethics of students identifying themselves as Muslim.

 

The ULC will review the issue but is not happy about re-addressing the proposal that was submitted for consideration, given that it fits the three prong test and meets legal requirements. The bill to suspend classes for Muslim holidays and its rationale is not easily defensible.

 

Committee Assignments4:45 p.m.

 

Chair Savitt reviewed the ULC subcommittees.  Martin Hildebrand has volunteered to chair the Committee on Athletics and Sumedha Tagare will join the Residential Life Committee.

 

Committee members will elect chairs at their first meetings.

Members can join whichever ad hoc committee they want to join; no chair need be immediately elected.

 

Bookstore concerns4:50 p.m.

 

Dan Smith reviewed some issues regarding the price of textbooks.

 

Textbook prices are getting more and more expensive. Barnes & Noble representatives met with students and faculty regarding the purchasing of textbooks. If orders get in on time, bookstore representatives can get competitive prices.

 

The California Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG) did a study on the rising cost of textbooks. They went directly to the publishers and discovered that in most cases, there is little to no reason for new editions of books to be published each year. Additionally, CALPIRG found that packaging for books is driving up the price.

 

There are congressional hearings scheduled regarding the high prices of textbooks.

 

Solutions to the problem include providing links to textbooks for a set price through the library or publishers making certain chapters available in print for a lower price than the whole textbook. Dan Smith will provide more info on the CALPIRG study to members. UAlbany’s UAS wants to have a discussion with faculty. ULC suggested that Julia Filippone (UAS) and Chris Rantz (UAlbany Bookstore) be invited to talk about this issue.

 

This issue will be discussed by either the entire committee or assigned to a subcommittee.

 

CDTA issues4:55 p.m.

 

Sumedha Tagare discussed some problems that students are having with the CDTA bus system. There appears to be miscounting on certain buses – so UAlbany gets overcharged in fees and less students are allowed on to the bus.

 

There are not enough buses for all the students who need transportation. Additionally, buses will go by without stopping or not arrive on time. Buses are supposed to run every 20 minutes at some stops by it does not appear to be happening so many students are left stranded.

 

The problem times seem to be at peak hours of the day.

 

Committee members discussed that this issue would be of concern to Michelle DiDonna, Director, Parking & Mass Transit Services, as well as Vice President Kathryn Lowery in Finance and Business.

 

Next Meeting is on October 17, 2005 at 3:30. Room location is LC 31J.

 

Meeting was adjourned at 5 p.m.

 

Respectfully Submitted,

Nancy Lauricella, Recording Secretary