Administration acts on commencement petition

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Students worry over commencement interfering with final exams and religious observances. Photo by Calvin Rong

Following significant pushback from students, Baruch College has made adjustments to the start time of commencement 2016 and the structure of finals week, moving the Friday, May 27, ceremony’s start time to 4 p.m. and rescheduling May 27 final exams to May 20.

After the Office of Student Life announced the 2016 graduation ceremony’s date and time at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, students with Friday evening religious observances and final exams slated for earlier that day and the next began voicing concern about commencement’s timing.

Originally scheduled for a 5 p.m. start time, commencement was moved to 4 p.m. after students expressed concern of the event interfering with the Jewish Sabbath.

A petition to change the date or time of the ceremony, started by Baruch senior Renee Shemesh, garnered 1,514 signatures as of March 11. Shemesh is an active member of Hillel at Baruch and is the former vice president of Youth Organization For Israel.

“The scheduled time of 5:00 p.m. on Friday, May 27, is an interference for observant students at Baruch,” explained Shemesh.

Although it depends on location, Sabbath is set to begin around 7:59 p.m., which is 18 minutes before sundown at 8:17 p.m.

“Having a commencement ceremony beginning at 5:00 p.m. and ending at 7:00 p.m. is a time constraint,” continued Shemesh.

To prepare for the Sabbath, families cook, clean and set-up necessary supplies. Some families attend prayer services before observing the Sabbath. “Observant students and families will sit there [in commencement] constantly looking at their watch thinking, ‘How long do I have until I have to leave to go home?’” said Shemesh.

Shemesh said she created the petition to alert graduating students of the issue at hand. “It was time to speak about it publicly to show Student Life at Baruch how many students are affected by their poor decision making. A lot of graduating seniors had no idea about graduation being on a Friday evening and during finals week. The response has been unbelievable and amazing.”

Within a day after creating the petition, Shemesh says that it received over 1,200 signatures.

Zeke Dwek, a fall 2015 Baruch graduate who signed the petition, plans to attend the 2016 commencement and also observes the Sabbath. “It’s definitely an inconvenience and a sore thumb on my Shabbat preparations,” said Dwek.

“I’m disappointed in our administration for choosing such an inconvenient time for its students. Between ongoing finals and the Muslim and Jewish holiday surrounding the ceremony, it was really a short-sighted decision.”

Amaz Qureshi, president of Baruch’s Muslim Students Association, explained that the timing of graduation may be conflicting for Muslim students since Fridays are days that many Muslims congregate in mosques for afternoon prayer. “So it’s usually held around 1-to-2:30 p.m. and the prayer is at the mosque, so I guess the issue for some people is that after the prayer, some people have other duties at the mosque so it’ll be conflicting with that.”

In an effort to ease student concern, Art King, vice president for student affairs and dean of students, sent out a mass email on Feb. 27 to let students know that the school is moving graduation to be an hour earlier, so it will conclude by 5:45 p.m., allowing for travel time prior to the start of the Sabbath.

“In consultation with representatives of our faith-based communities on campus and after researching the official time of sunset, we made the decision that, if we want to have one graduation ceremony–which we most certainly do–we should adjust our ceremony so that it concluded by 5:45 p.m.,” wrote King in the email.

Damali Smith, acting director of Student Life, explained that finding a venue for commencement to fit 15,000 to 20,000 people leaves a choice of either Madison Square Garden or the Barclays Center.

Choosing a venue for Baruch commencement occurs immediately after the last commencement. Due to blackout dates at MSG, the arena is unavailable for outside events. If granted access to the theater at MSG, Baruch commencement is then split into two ceremonies.

The Barclays Center, however, comfortably seats the number of expected guest for Baruch commencement in one ceremony. Because of other events such as the NBA Draft and the New York Islanders schedule, Student Life had to work around the Barclays’ programming. With special permission from the center, Student Life was then offered times on May 27 or June 20.

King concluded his mass email stating that this was a “one-year anomaly” and “if there was a way that we could have changed the date, we certainly would have done so.”

Other than affecting religious observances, Baruch commencement is during spring 2016 finals week. The tentative final exam schedule began on May 22 and ended on May 28, but in an email sent to students on March 11, David Christy, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, announced that May 27 finals would be moved to May 20, with times and locations remaining the same.

But that does not offer any help to students with finals on the morning of May 28, according to Qureshi. “May the 28th is still a day for finals, so a lot of students are pushing [to study for] their Financial Accounting III class, which is a very difficult class. The final is at nine in the morning the Saturday after graduation.”

Despite the time change, Shemesh says that it is still not a practical solution for students and their families who live outside of New York City. “I thank Baruch for taking our concerns into consideration and coming up with a change of time. However, this time is a practical solution for students who live in the Brooklyn-Queens area. There are a lot of students who live in Long Island, Westchester, Connecticut, New Jersey … these students will have an issue getting home before the Sabbath.”

Abe Saff, president of Hillel at Baruch, is a graduating senior and observes the Sabbath. He says that although the timing of commencement will interfere with his observances, he stated that, “The Jewish students [of Baruch] want to work closely in the future with Student Life to make sure that all needs of all students at Baruch are accommodated.”

Editor's Note: A previous version of this article included information that a source had intended to be off the record. We honored the source's request and have since revised the article.