Short Shrift to MLK Day?

Professors at Ohio State criticize administration for rearranging classes that will be missed on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, as opposed to other holidays.
December 19, 2007

In the 1970s and early 1980s, supporters rallied to create a federal holiday memorializing Martin Luther King Jr.'s leadership in the civil rights movement and his union activism. For many students today, those efforts have translated to King-themed activities and a respite from coursework one day a year.

As usual, Ohio State University has no intention of holding classes on Martin Luther King Jr. Day next year, when it will fall on Monday, January 21. But unique scheduling difficulties recently forced administrators to diverge from the typical calendar guidelines, which would have placed the winter quarter's commencement ceremony on Easter Sunday and the summer quarter's on Labor Day weekend. The resulting adjustment would have left students with more Fridays than Mondays, so a plan finalized partially with input from a group of faculty decided on a solution: holding classes that might have been held on the King holiday on the first Friday of the winter quarter instead.

The announcement to students and faculty this month has sparked a protest among a group of at least nine professors who feel that King's day was singled out and that the decision to "make up" that day's classes didn't take into account their perspectives. "Is the holiday honoring Dr. King of any less importance than the Christian holiday of Easter or Labor Day?" they wrote in a letter to Brad A. Myers, the university registrar, this month. The question seemed to imply that making up classes from either of those holidays is never considered. (Labor Day is also on a Monday, but it falls in the summer, not winter, quarter.)

"To be clear, we are not opposed to ensuring that students receive the fullest academic quarter possible," the letter continues. "However, we strongly oppose the way in which the decision to adjust the quarter is framed and justified as if the King holiday, a national day of observance and remembrance, is a disruption to the academic schedule. This framing is especially troubling in light of the history of racist resistance to establishing the King holiday."

The letter also asks why the University Senate Diversity Committee was not consulted on the decision.

The administration explained its rationale in its original December 4 announcement to the university: "With an already shorter-than-usual quarter, it was agreed to exchange the [first] Friday classes ... for the Monday classes that will be missed on the Martin Luther King holiday. Friday is, by far, the least utilized instructional day, and most classes offered on Friday have a Monday component anyway. The reverse is not true."

Since Ohio State, like most institutions, doesn't as a policy hold classes on the Martin Luther King holiday, the idea that students are "missing" classes on that day that they would have otherwise is somewhat inaccurate to begin with. At the end of the day, said Cynthia A. Tyson, an associate professor of education who sent the letter criticizing the administration's decision, "it was the framing of why they had to be rescheduled, and that was the major issue."

Rather than give the appearance of evening out the quarter "on the back of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday," Tyson suggested, the administration could have announced the schedule change without referencing it at all. "This adjustment could have been made without even mentioning the holiday," she said.

Some students have also questioned the scheduling change, although not necessarily for reasons related to the King holiday's history. "What makes Monday classes worth making up but Friday classes dispensable?" the editors of the student newspaper, The Lantern, wanted to know last month.

"We at The Lantern understand that starting the quarter a week later would cause problems for commencement, and professors should benefit from having the extra day of classes," the editorial continued. "But other holidays, such as Thanksgiving or Veterans Day, also cause students to miss class, and the university sees no need to make up for those.

"Because both students and professors will have to completely rearrange their schedules to deal with this, it's likely that these Monday on Friday classes will either be canceled or let out early, after a short summary of the syllabus."

Myers, who wasn't available for comment, responded to the faculty members' letter last Friday. "I feel comfortable in assuring you that no one in the review process meant to imply any disrespect for Dr. King’s wonderful legacy or the holiday commemorating that legacy," he wrote. "The focus of the discussion was toward maximizing instructional days in the first, short week of an otherwise already shortened quarter."

The faculty letter specifically requested a public apology, something Tyson would still like to see. She understands that it wasn't a group of people "being evil," but she said it was a missed opportunity for a "teachable moment."


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