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Put yourself in the shoes of an observant Christian student taking Statistics 100, “Introduction to Quantitative Methods.” Today is Good Friday, and you had hoped to spend the day at home worshiping with your family and friends. But you have a midterm, and so you are instead sitting in your dining hall reading the paper as a distraction from trying to memorize the details of population means.
According to Massachusetts state law, students who are unable to attend class or participate in an examination due to religious observance must be excused without penalty and provided the opportunity for a makeup if it does not constitute an “unreasonable burden” on the school.
Though official Harvard policy parallels the law in theory, in practice there is a wide disparity in the degree to which professors are willing to accommodate their religiously obligated students.
In Statistics 100, for example, students must take a midterm today, on Good Friday, which, while not directly against the law, has deterred some from going home to celebrate with their families. In many classes, such as Sociology 67, lecture videos are unavailable, despite ample resources to fix this problem.
We understand some professors’ aversion to putting lecture videos online to avoid tempting students to skip class, but we hardly think that taping the few lectures that fall on religious holidays constitute an “unreasonable burden” on Harvard or the professor in question. Nor should moving an examination or providing a makeup.
We do not dispute that the onus should be on students to alert professors of religious absences as early as possible and to make up the work that they miss. Nevertheless, professors and teaching fellows must be flexible. This means that if it’s at all possible to tape lectures, move or offer makeups of exams, or let students attend alternate section times, professors should do so.
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