Faculty votes to cancel class to observe MLK holiday

Rachel Stone

Washington and Lee’s undergraduate faculty voted last Monday to cancel classes on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, starting next school year.

Faculty on both sides of the debate made it clear that this was a complement to the programs W&L already offers throughout the week. The journalism department unanimously supported canceling classes.

“We feel that it’s an important statement to our students . . . that we honor all that Dr. King did to help try to bring an end to racial discrimination,” said Professor Pam Luecke.

She said recognizing the diverse, multicultural society is a core value of the university.

President of the Executive Committee Lucy Wade Shapiro said events in the past were unnoticed by many students. She said that this will hopefully bring more attention to the holiday.

Shapiro said she supported the faculty and knows it was a well thought out decision.

But Lucas Morel, Professor of Politics, questioned the consequences of this decision.

“Will [taking a day off] facilitate greater student engagement with the life and legacy of Dr. King?” Morel said. “Or will it lead to less engagement?”

According to Morel, the university’s primary audience is the students and prospective students. He said the faculty’s job and main concern should be education.

“As faculty, our decision should be made on the basis of what the impact on the curriculum would be to our students. We should not use that as a surrogate to accomplish some other objective; that’s not our job,” said Morel. “I am a bit dismayed though that this vote was meant to accomplish something other than the curriculum . . . It was meant to be a symbol to the outside world.”

But other faculty felt the symbol was important. The vote was overwhelmingly in favor of canceling classes. Many faculty believe doing so is an important sign of respect to African-American heritage and the recognition of all the Martin Luther King did.

“W&L needs to go the extra step to show we care about diversity,” said David Peterson, professor of politics. “We have turned a page.”

This day has been a national holiday since 1983. Since the law school made the decision to honor MLK Day in the 2012-2013 academic year, that was another push for many to consider canceling classes.

Many students agree with the faculty’s decision.

“I’m proud that the faculty have made this decision,” said junior Lauren Howard, Vice President of the Executive Committee. “Given the history of the University, I think the choice to recognize MLK Day as a school holiday is one that’s long overdue.”

The discussion even now may not have happened if not for the efforts of the law students, known as the Committee, who raised concerns last school year about diversity and inclusion. It was their letter that brought this topic into debate. The Committee also said this vote was long overdue.

“The discussion on whether to suspend classes in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has been ongoing for decades,” said Anjelica Hendricks of the Committee. “What has been missing from those discussions is an unwavering, firm demand on the institution for action; a demand we believe the Committee gave the institution earlier this year.”

Regardless of individual opinions, the faculty and administration are united in wanting to honor MLK and his legacy.

“I support their decision and anticipate that, as a community, we will effectively incorporate our existing programming into this day,” said President Kenneth Ruscio.

The faculty will consider how to implement this change, which begins in the 2016 school year, in their December meeting.