February 24, 2024

Many Wittenberg students say that holding classes on Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Day is unreasonable and that the university should scrap its annual Martin Luther King convocation for different events.

Each year, Jan. 21 memorializes the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., and Wittenberg commemorates the day in two ways. First, the university invites the campus community to attend a convocation speaker in Weaver Chapel. Second, the university allows professors to hold class if they choose, encouraging them to relate the class material to racial and discrimination issues.

However, no public schools hold classes on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Since the federal government recognizes Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a federal holiday, non-essential government entities like schools must close. Because Wittenberg is a private liberal arts college, it chooses how it commemorates the holiday autonomously.

Some students say that Wittenberg’s faculty needs to reevaluate how the school decides to mark MLK Day on the grounds of consistency with public institutions.

“A lot of schools and government buildings are closed, so we should just follow them,” Veronica Bidwill, ’21, said.

Trent Sprague, ’22, also said that Witt students should have the day off in accordance with public schools.

In addition to wanting the Martin Luther King Jr. Day off school, students with majors outside of the humanities said that when their professors hold classes on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, they ignore civil rights issues altogether.

“Every class I’ve had on MLK Day has been a normal class like any other day,” biology major Taylor Wallrauch, ’19, said.

Wallrauch also said that Wittenberg’s status as a Lutheran institution influences how it commemorates nonreligious holidays , which secular students may hold to a higher importance than religious holidays.

“We have things like religious days off,” Wallrauch said. “Jesus was obviously a big part of history and all, but we can’t be off school to recognize the impact of Martin Luther King? I’m not religious, so I don’t even need school off to celebrate those religious holidays.”

Biology major Lauren Hoendorf, ’20, agreed with what Wallrauch said and added that Wittenberg should consider holding more engaging events on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in addition to the annual convocation. She praised Wittenberg for offering events aside from the annual convocation for students to attend this year, like professor-led lectures on civil rights issues.

“I would love to go the convocation, but I have lab at 1:45 and would rather not rush back and forth between places,” Hoendorf said. “They have a lot of events. I will be going to a talk led by a professor. I think it’s rude that we have class though.”

Other Wittenberg students said that Wittenberg should address Martin Luther King Jr. Day directly like the convocation, but through events more appealing than talks.

Kenzie Hill, ’20, said that having school on Martin Luther King Jr. day complicates the point of the holiday’s status altogether and brought up the idea of an alternative event to the convocation.

“I agree that we should have MLK Day off because it’s out of respect for students that can relate to Martin Luther King’s mission,” Hill said. “We need an event with more interaction. King’s mission was so much bigger than the same three lectures we’re taught every year on MLK Day.”

Kassie Heironimus, ’19, said that the convocation should be tweaked to better emphasize the impact of Martin Luther King, but that professors should re-examine whether or not they hold classes.

“If they do hold classes, the classes should be MLK centered,” Heironimus said. “My Chinese religion class talked about the experiences of Asian immigrants, for example. I do think that having a convocation or observation would be helpful, maybe even on the day before, but I don’t think any student wants to have class on MLK Day. Not a single student. Not one.”

English Professor Rick Incorvati, who decided to hold classes on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, responded to widespread student concerns in an interview.

“I’ve become convinced that as a country, we need to become more deliberate in how we confront our history of racial oppression and how we move forward,” Incorvati said. “I think having a day off is a way of showing importance. It communicates to young people that our civil rights history is on that level. What’s different is that we’re a residential community. What I have strong feelings about is that it’s wrong to hold class and not address race.”

After hearing that math classes often fail to address race, Incorvati provided some suggestions to professors experiencing difficulty relating their designated subjects to civil rights issues.

“Every discipline has its own challenges, but there are ways to think creatively, even if that means not teaching your subject,” Incorvati said.

In response to the effectiveness of the convocation, Incorvati’s response was mixed.

“We have terrific speakers, but I’m sure there is a better way to address MLK Day,” Incorvati said. “I don’t know what that is though. There are better and worse ways, but I don’t know what those would be.”

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