Mullin: When words ring hollow

Editor’s note: According to an email sent Feb. 5 to faculty from the Augustana Human Resources Office, the university will observe Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Juneteenth, Native American Day and Veterans Day, starting with Juneteenth this summer.

By the time you read this piece, a new semester will have started and another January of Augustana “celebrating,” but not recognizing, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s holiday will have gone by. While speakers and participatory events are nice, the holding of classes and continued rejection of a national holiday make such events window dressing for the real issue: how committed is the university to the promotion of diversity? 

Augustana alleges it wants to become more diverse. Its strategic plan proclaims that the institution will “enhance intercultural awareness and understanding.” Yet current policy suggests this is a lip service proposal. Continuing to maintain the King holiday as a regular day of instruction thwarts diversity efforts. Why would I, if I were a student of color, want to attend an institution that treats two holidays for people of color — Native American Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day — as regular teaching days? 

I have heard the arguments before. ‘An instructor could create a special class for each day if he or she cared to do so.’ This is a gratuitous argument. I would argue that such an approach represents an academic form of tokenism. 

Our motto is “enter to learn, leave to serve.” In many ways this was King’s mantra too. His goal was to uplift all Americans. What makes the King holiday different from any other national or state holiday is its forward-thinking nature. The day is about thinking about how much more is left to be done in our quest for a more just and equitable nation.

Our nation’s other secular holidays have us look backwards — to our nation’s birth, those who lost their lives in service to the country or as a reminder of our labor struggles. The King holiday asks us to think about the future of our nation. What can we do to make the nation a better place?

Some will argue that interim is too compacted as it is. Yes, it is. But this semester the term started on a Tuesday, not a Monday. It would have been easy to readjust the start of the term to allow for the holiday.

Some will argue that the university cannot afford to pay for another holiday for employees. If that is the case, at least tell us that. Many employees took salary reductions because of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the university’s finances. Adding the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday to the university’s holiday schedule becomes a morale booster, not just the right thing to do.

Until the university formally recognizes the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday as a ‘real’ holiday for the community, its commitment to diversity will be open to question. It is my hope that the university adopts Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a true holiday, one that we can use to think about our future in an increasingly diverse America.

Michael Mullin is a history professor and the university’s National Endowment for the Humanities Chair of Regional Heritage.

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