Striking Teachers Fail Schechter Institute Plan to Pass Students

Director says passing students locked out of classes by strike is common practice.

The Schechter Institute is seriously endangering its academic credentials by announcing it will give students a passing grade this semester if a current teachers strike has not ended by Monday, the institution's workers committee said this week.

The teachers added that the president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, Rabbi David Golinkin, lacks the authority to pass students in lieu of a settlement.

Shechter Institute
Emil Salmon

Golinkin rejected these assertions, saying he is indeed entitled to give passing grades because of the strike and that such a move is common practice.

Yossi Turner, the head of the workers committee, said Schechter management's plan to give students the grade "pass" by the official end of the semester Monday was wrongheaded.

"I would consider it an abomination," the New York native said. "It would show the Schechter Institute is a non-serious academic institution, which gives grades on no basis ... It would decry the institution of the right to claim any type of academic stature in the future."

The workers argue that because of the strike - which started about three weeks ago - the students did not complete their coursework and would be granted a passing grade "regardless of academic progress or merit," they declared in a statement.

The workers suspect that management's planned moves - which also include freezing workers' salaries until August 1 - are designed to end the semester at whatever cost, easing pressure to get the teachers back to work.

Schechter is considered one of the Conservative movement's flagship institutions in Israel and is popular among Anglos. The strike encompasses all teaching activities at Schechter, including a graduate program in Jewish studies, a rabbinical school and the TALI fund, a network of pluralistic Jewish education programs in public schools across the country.

The labor dispute started in the summer of 2009, when management cut salaries following the death of U.S. businessman William Davidson, whose annual donation covered about 15 percent of Schechter's budget. The cuts have since been rescinded and management has agreed to pay back the withheld money. The current strike is based on a disagreement about the timeframe of these back payments: Management says it can only do so over several years while workers believe the institution can come up with the money sooner.

According to a press release issued by the workers union Tuesday, the "use of granting 'pass' grades for courses not studied or completed during a strike by faculty, as a weapon against striking faculty members, is unprecedented in the Israeli academic community, and severely jeopardizes the academic standing of the Institute, which just six years ago received full accreditation from the Israeli Council for Higher Education."

According to Paul Mandel, a senior lecturer at Schechter and one of the leaders of the workers committee, previous cases of universities granting students passing grades for a strike-shortened semester took place only after the arguing parties had come to an agreement.

"But here it is being used as a tool against the striking workers in order to just threaten them," the Washington D.C. native told Anglo File. "This is a bad and very cynical use of this tool, especially since it will create havoc and jeopardize the accreditation of the institution. It cheapens the institution because it gives grades for something that really wasn't done."

A spokesman for the Council for Higher Education did not reply to several requests for comment.

In a statement released Wednesday, Schechter said giving passing grades during a strike "is an accepted practice implemented by many other academic institutions in the past."

Speaking to Anglo File this week, Golinkin said he felt "it's a much greater jeopardy to the academic standing to go on strike."

For Israeli universities, "it's almost automatic" to grant passing grades when a strike disrupts the semester, even if no courses took place for several months. "There's nothing unusual here at all," the U.S.-born Golinkin said.

Workers also say Golinkin would not be able to follow through on his plans without the support of the school's academic committee, which is made up of a dozen professors that discuss all academic matters.

"That body was not convened in order to decide on this issue," said Mandel. "The president certainly has no authority to decide this without the prior agreement by the academic committee."

Turner, the head of the workers union, said a "large majority" of the academic council - of which he is a member - urged Golinkin to refrain from giving out passing grades. "He is not permitted to choose such a course unless he convenes the academic council and asks about that position," which he has not done, Turner said.

Golinkin disagrees, referring to the opinion of Schechter's legal counsel. "He advised us that under the circumstances it's perfectly legitimate for the president, who is also the rector, to make such a decision," Golinkin said. "This is not an academic issue, it's part of the workers' dispute and they were trying to drag the academic council into the workers' dispute."

The measures Schechter is threatening to enact by Monday are not intended to pressure the workers but are "simply a reply to our students who have been asking us for a few weeks what's going to happen to them," Golinkin said. "We have a moral and legal obligation to let our students finish their semester," he added.

For Anna Gerrard, however, a passing grade this semester is not good enough. The 31-year-old Londoner, who is studying for an M.A. at Schechter as part of a rabbinical program in the U.K., is still waiting for grades from the previous semester.

"These grades are incredibly important to me because they constitute parts of my studies and my rabbinic ordination depends on them," said Gerrard, adding that she needs to complete her studies here before her planned move back to London this summer.

"It's about deadlines - I'm supposed to be ordained a rabbi in July and if I don't have all my grades by then there is a question mark whether my college will do that," she told Anglo File.

The workers at Schechter are striking for a good reason, she added, "and therefore I'm not going to expect them to go back to work just because I need my paper marked."

Instead, she blames management for failing to compromise for the benefit of the students.

"It's been taking weeks to move things forward, that shows a lack of concern and an unwillingness to consider the fact that it impacts the students," she said about the many failed meetings between the two parties. "Now to come up with the idea of giving passing grades again shows a lack of concern for the students. It's not what the students want. The students want to finish their studies and to earn the grades they deserve."