Today people across the country celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a man whose relentless efforts on behalf of greater civil rights and equality for all people touched the life of every American, regardless of race, color, sex or creed.
Indeed, King’s legacy still resonates clearly at Yale. The University today boasts an increasingly diverse student body and faculty, a broad offering of classes reflective of the variety of its students, and cultural houses and activities geared toward students from many backgrounds –all developments that would hardly have been conceivable before the activism of King and his followers. In perhaps the most striking example of the about-face Yale has made, the current senior fellow of the Yale Corporation — often considered the embodiment of Yale elitism and exclusion — is Kurt Schmoke ’71, a black Rhodes Scholar and former mayor of Baltimore.
Given the tremendous contribution King and his followers made to equality in America, especially in its educational system, it is disconcerting how inconsistent Yale has been in its decision to cancel classes on Martin Luther King Jr. Day but not on any other holidays. When the University’s faculty voted to cancel classes today, it clearly stated that it considered King’s birthday superior to all other federal holidays in the school year — Veterans Day, Labor Day, and Presidents Day included.
The claim that King was any more important to America than the veterans who fought for our freedom, the workers who drive our economy, or the presidents who have led our nation is not only specious, but it is offensive to all the excluded groups. Ironically, the fact that the University did not even propose a vote of the faculty — or anyone else, for that matter — on whether to cancel classes on the other holidays displays just the kind of double standard that King so bravely and fervently opposed.
Under the circumstances, however, the organization of a full schedule of events to take the place of classes today is the most constructive use of a day off. The speeches, workshops and panels today present a forum for all members of the community to learn from each other in a structured and productive way, and students should take advantage of these opportunities.
But there really is no reason students could not attend such events outside the framework of classes without deviating from the usual University calendar, just as they celebrate other holidays while school is in session.
In the future, Yale should hold a vote to decide whether either all or no federal holidays now falling during the school year should be occasions for canceling class. The result of such a poll is unsure, but either outcome would be far better than the inconsistent policy the University has decided to follow this year. And above all, the decision to exercise a system based on equality and voting rights would be a far more effective way to honor King’s legacy than a mere day off.