The college will begin to recognize the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday as an official college holiday starting in January 2016. This schedule change was approved after a presentation by the Curriculum Committee to the faculty at their regularly scheduled meeting last semester on May 15. In an email sent to the student body on April 28, Dean of Students Liz Braun cited both ideological and logistical problems associated with the college’s non-observance of the holiday. Braun wrote that holding classes on MLK Day makes it impossible for members of the Swarthmore community to adequately honor Dr. King, makes the college out of step with most of its peers, and does not help to affirm its own social justice mission.
In her April email, Dean Braun asked for feedback regarding the then-potential changes to the academic calendar regarding the addition of the federal holiday. Historically, the college has held classes on this day, which is designed to honor the life and work of Dr. King. According to the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, King “…led a nonviolent movement in the late 1950’s and ‘60s to achieve legal equality for African-Americans in the United States.”
This year, the MLK day holiday will take place on Monday, January 18, 2016 and will extend winter break an extra day, causing Monday-Wednesday-Friday classes to meet 41 times during the spring semester instead of 42. Dean Braun assured students in the April email that residence halls would still open on Friday the 15th and the spring semester meal plan will still go into effect on the evening of Sunday the 17th.
Many members of the college community welcomed the changed enthusiastically, especially the student body, who will now be receiving an extra day off during the spring semester. Director of Religious and Spiritual Life Joyce Tompkins wrote in an email that the addition of the holiday was absolutely the right decision, and one she calls long overdue.
“With our Quaker heritage of commitment to peace, equality, and sacrificial work for social justice, honoring Dr. King is an obvious opportunity to call our entire community together. It makes sense to take a day apart from the ordinary schedule, to put aside our individual pursuits, and to join in this ongoing work together,” Tompkins wrote. Tompkins is looking forward to working with Dean of the junior class and Director of the Black Cultural Center Dion Lewis to plan a day of observances and service opportunities that will include the entire community. Dean Lewis did not respond to requests to contribute to this article.
Dean Braun also celebrated the addition of the holiday, and described herself as “very happy” with the change.
“…I think that many have felt for a long time that there was a fundamental mismatch between our institutional values and commitment to social justice and not recognizing the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday as an official college holiday and by extension not allowing students, faculty, and staff to celebrate the holiday in a more comprehensive way,” Braun wrote in an email. She also noted that the holiday opens up new opportunities for everyone in the community to engage in a day of reflection and service.
Many members of the student body felt just as excited as members of the administration about the addition of the holiday, with some reservations. Swarthmore African Students Association Co-president Lydia Koku said that the change should have been made a long time ago, and that how the college chooses to recognize the day will be very important to her.
“I don’t think that it should just be a free holiday that passes us. That’s what I had in high school and nobody really took the time to think about what the day actually means. I hope that in college, especially the Deans’ Office in particular, that they’ll take the time to really think about how students should use the holiday,” Koku said.
The addition of MLK day to the college’s official academic calendar also comes at a time when the United States is experiencing increased media coverage on events such as the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, the murders of trans women of color including Mercedes Williamson and Shade Schuler, and the deaths of many unarmed African-Americans at the hands of law enforcement or in police custody, including Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and Sandra Bland. Tompkins explained that the Black Lives Matter movement is the most recent reminder that the community and the country has a lot of work to do to bring Dr. King’s dream to reality. Dean Braun believes that the change is particularly timely in light of the current sociopolitical context, and now more than ever, the community needs to find ways to carry forward Dr. King’s legacy and teachings. Koku thought that the addition of the holiday wasn’t necessarily an intersection with the Black Lives Matter movement, but rather a response to student voices.
“We’ve been talking about this for a long time, and I don’t know, maybe Black Lives Matter had something to do with their decision, but I don’t know if it was necessarily an intersection or that the timing was deliberate,” she said.
The official schedule of events for the holiday have yet to be released, but according to Braun, more details will be revealed as the day approaches.