While most public colleges and universities will be closed today to honor the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a number of private and religious-affiliate schools across the country will be open for business, much to the chagrin of some faculty and students.
“It’s very disappointing,” says Steven McFarland, a junior at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and co-president of the Swarthmore African American Student Society. “This day is about what Swarthmore is about, social justice. That is why I came here.”
The Philadelphia native says that, for more than a decade, student leaders have, without much success, called on administrators to postpone classes until after the holiday.
Mark Anskis, a spokesman for Swarthmore, says that Dr. Collin Williams Jr., a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, will speak at a breakfast this morning on campus and that the university will honor the lives of three generations of Swarthmore African-American men, including Paul Cato, a student leader who is scheduled to graduate in May.
“Classes are in session at Swarthmore College on Martin Luther King Day,” Anskis wrote in an e-mail. “Staff members are permitted to take the day off as part of the college’s holiday schedule.”
But because the college decided to begin its semester on the King holiday, McFarland and others say they are conflicted over how best to honor the civil rights icon.
“You can’t miss the first day of class,” says McFarland, who is majoring in political science and education policy. “I’m hopeful that eventually the university will decide to start classes after Dr. King’s birthday.”
At Washington and Lee University in Virginia, classes for undergraduate students will be held on an abbreviated schedule.
But classes at the law school have been canceled. Two years ago, David Knoespel, who is now a third-year law student, began a petition on Change.org that generated national attention from media outlets.
Though Knoespel says that administrators at Washington and Lee have long been committed to diversity and “are very responsive to student wishes and concerns,” he felt that classes needed to be canceled so that students, faculty and staff could reflect in earnest on King’s life and legacy.
“The symbolic value of this day is so important,” says Knoespel, who is scheduled to graduate in May. “Having this time to speak about diversity and social issues and the challenges that face us is so important, and I worry that it just won’t happen any other time.”
Knoespel says that he hopes that the organizing efforts that took place at the law school will eventually trickle down to the undergraduate level. “When people take a stand and form coalitions, you can get things done,” he says.
Administrators at Washington and Lee and other universities say that canceling classes—particularly when the holiday falls at the beginning of the semester—isn’t the only way to honor King’s legacy.
They point to the guest speakers who come to campus and the service opportunities in the community as an example that the King holiday should be a day on and not a day off.
Democratic political strategist and television commentator Donna Brazile is scheduled to deliver the keynote for the King festivities at Washington and Lee this evening.
Still, more than two decades after President Ronald Reagan signed the federal holiday into law, colleges and universities have sought to celebrate the civil rights icon in varying ways, even though federal offices, banks and the U.S. Postal Service are all closed.
Jamal Watson can be reached at [email protected]