Davis-authored winter break petition gains traction, hits obstacles with quarter system

An online petition posted by a UC Davis student on Jan. 22 has obtained more than 27,000 signatures from students UC-wide opposing a change in the academic calendar that shortens next year’s winter break from three weeks to two.

The change, resulting from a UC policy to accommodate major religious holidays, has sparked discussion among students about the tight constraints of the quarter system and what role religion should play in determining the school schedule.

Petition supporters say two weeks is too short for winter break, especially for international students and others who live too far away to easily go home for such a short time.

Next fall, most UC students will start school on Sept. 29, a week later than last year, to allow Jewish students to observe Rosh Hashanah from Sept. 24 to 26. Those students can move in after the holiday and attend the first day of instruction on Oct. 2 before observing Yom Kippur from Oct. 3 to 4.

The UC policy mandating that no move-in day conflict with a major religious holiday has been in place since 2007, but this is the first time the dates have conflicted with Jewish holidays, which follow a lunar calendar. The policy was last invoked in 2009, when the move-in dates for the two UC semester schools were adjusted for students observing Ramadan.

“It’s a difficult balance to continue to respect religious freedom for all students while having enough room in between every quarter,” said Carly Sandstrom, president of the Associated Students of UC Davis. “It’s definitely a topic that has arisen for my staff, for other people’s staffs. It’s gaining momentum.”

The petition, which is unaffiliated with student government, is addressed to UC President Janet Napolitano. Written by UC Davis student Alfredo Amaya, the petition asks that the start of the 2014-15 winter quarter be shifted from Jan. 5 to 12, allowing the fall start date to still accommodate the High Holy Days while maintaining the three-week winter break. In just the first two days after Amaya posted the petition on his Facebook page, 24,000 students signed it.

Amaya did not respond to queries made through email and Facebook, as well as a phone message left at his family’s home in Perris, in Riverside County.

A combination of policies dictating the quarter system’s tight calendar makes the petition’s request impossible to grant, said Brooke Converse, spokeswoman for the University of California Office of the President.

Academic calendars for 2011 to 2017 were created by a UCLA calendar team in 2009, which then sent out the proposed dates to the other seven UC quarter schools. Individual campuses can make slight adjustments to the calendar so long as they comply with additional regulations about the number of instruction days, length of grading periods and placement of finals, and get the adjustments approved by the UC provost, she said. The 2014-15 calendar was made public for all UC schools in 2011 and there “isn’t a lot of wiggle room when they take in all the various policies,” Converse said.

Changing the 2014-15 calendar to accommodate the petitioners’ demands would only push next fall’s start a week later and re-create the same problem, because the summer quarter cannot be shortened. Adjusting next year’s dates would also disturb events and conferences with contractual obligations.

“What it comes down to is we understand the students have concerns, but it is not viable to change the calendar at this point,” Converse said.

Sandstrom and the Associated Students are in talks with the UC Davis registrar and plan to draft a formal letter to the UC president, requesting a better compromise be found for the 2021-22 calendar, when the next conflict with move-in day will occur. Associated Students held a public discussion Thursday to address the calendar issue and heard complaints from about five students. Amaya did not attend the meeting, Sandstrom said.

Plausible or not, UC students continue to vent their frustrations through the petition, which explains that winter break is a crucial time for students to rest, see family and, in some cases, make much-needed money. Several online commenters referenced the difficulty that a two-week break will cause international students.

Several hundred students have also posted online comments attached to the petition, many of them discussing the separation of church and state. Some commenters questioned whether it is fair to change the school calendar to accommodate a small percentage of students. Others questioned why religion should play a role in setting the school calendar at all.

For second-year Davis student Naftali Moed, who is Jewish, the language reflects a wider lack of understanding about, and even some animosity toward, the university’s observant Jewish population.

“Everything about that petition bothered me,” he said.

Moed, a San Francisco native, said he usually spends Rosh Hashanah with his family at his hometown synagogue. Although he would have no problem missing class for this holiday, he wants to “be able to move in like a normal person,” he said.

“The original calendar was put in place to preserve Christmas and the American New Year,” he said. “To me, Jan. 1 doesn’t mean anything. My New Year is whenever the moon decides to do its thing. People don’t really understand that.”

Although both Davis officials and UC administrators said they are aware of the widely circulated petition, Sandstrom said it will not be formally considered by administration unless it goes through the student government. A Davis student can write a resolution to be voted on by the student Senate and sent formally to administration, or he or she can bring to the Senate a petition with a minimum of 1,000 signatures, which will then be placed on a universitywide ballot to be voted on by students and considered by officials.

In the meantime, students are crunched by the restraints of a packed educational calendar. Students on the UC quarter system typically have four weeks of break in a nine-month academic period, which Sandstrom said is hardly enough considering the competitive nature of UC academics. Due to a need for one-week buffers on both sides of the summer quarter, students will have only three weeks of break between October 2014 and June 2015.

The UC system adopted the quarter system in 1965 to accommodate a bulge in enrollment, but UC Berkeley switched back to semesters in 1983. The system’s newest school, UC Merced, also adopted the semester model. UC Davis debated switching to semesters in 1997, but efforts to do so failed.

Current students have mixed feelings about the quarter system, said Sandstrom, because it disqualifies them from many summer internships and jobs, since school doesn’t get out until mid-June. At UC Berkeley, by comparison, the fall semester in 2014 will last from Aug. 28 to Dec. 19. Instruction for the spring semester will begin Jan. 20, 2015, and end May 15. Students also get a weeklong spring break.

Danielle Koning, a third-year Davis student who transferred from a 16-week semester system at Cosumnes River College, said the adjustment has been difficult.

“Every other week you’re taking an exam,” she said. “My semester system friends basically just started school, and we already took our first exam.”

Although there is little UC officials can do to change next year’s calendar, Converse said, they are taking student concerns about the winter break seriously and will continue to search for a future solution that meets the needs of all students.

“It’s very important to us that all members of our community have equal opportunity to participate in university activities around the start of the academic year,” she said. “We’re going to continue to create these calendars well in advance and in consultation with all the campuses, the academic senate and office of the president. It will continue to be a thorough process.”

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