By BRITTANY DEVRIES
With Black History Month underway and the repercussions of last semester’s response to a racial indiscretion in Jefferson Hall continuing into the spring, the administration had their timing right.
In a Feb. 18 press release sent to all faculty, the University of Mary Washington decided that every third Monday in January, campus will be closed in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. This decision will go into effect on Jan. 19 for the 2008-09 school year.
Acting President Richard V. Hurley was on the panel that voted in favor of the recent schedule change.
“I felt it was something the University should do to truly honor Dr. King,” Hurley said. “Not closing sent not so subtle messages about the institution’s priorities which, to me, are contrary to all the statements we make about being inclusive, appreciating diversity and wanting a more diverse campus.”
Junior Kiama Anthony, president of the Black Student Association, said she is glad to see that UMW is no longer one of three Virginia schools to not celebrate Martin Luther King Day.
“I agree with UMW being closed for MLK Day because we are one of the only Virginia state schools that are in session that day,” Anthony said. “I feel like this is one of the more important observed holidays and it really said a lot about the institution when we weren’t closed.”
The two colleges in Virginia that remain open on MLK day are Christopher Newport University and Virginia Military Institute.
Senior Marija Ozolins, co-president of S.E.E.D. (Students Educating and Empowering Diversity), said that she is excited about the recent schedule change.
“I think it sends a really great message, that we are trying to make our school modern and attractive to students from all kinds of different backgrounds,” Ozolins said. “This sends a message of solidarity in upholding the statement of community values.”
The MLK Student Celebration Committee, an informal, student-led campus organization, has petitioned and organized efforts since November 2006 for the University to honor Martin Luther King Day.
Ozolins, a member of the committee, helped gather nearly 1000 student, faculty, and staff signatures for the petition.
“We submitted the proposal in the spring of 2007 and had a meeting with President Frawley and other VPs where we made our case,” Ozolins said. “Frawley seemed open to it and, before he left the University, we think he would have gone through with canceling classes.”
This January, the celebration committee submitted a second proposal to Bernard Chirico, vice president of student affairs, and Cedric Rucker, dean of student life. Chirico and Rucker brought the proposal to the administration for executive approval.
Hurley said that the student committee’s petition played an important part in the decision to cancel classes in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.
“I tell folks that in the last two years we have become much more student-centered and that we have responded to a number of requests for changes that students have made,” he said.
Noting the racially insensitive poster found in Jefferson Hall on Oct. 15, and the unity march that stemmed from it, some students find it difficult to believe that there is no connection between the discriminatory events and the decision to cancel school on Martin Luther King Day.
Senior Jennifer Bryant, co-president of S.E.E.D., mentions that possibility.
“There has been a great deal of student activism this year, particularly on this issue, and I think that showed the faculty and administration that we were serious about it,” Bryant said. “After several discriminatory incidents in the past few years, this was not an issue that could be ignored and I’m proud that everyone stepped up the way they did.”
Anthony agrees that the march contributed to the recent cancellation.
“I think the march had a huge impact on this decision because it showed that UMW students, faculty, staff, and the community had united on a common concept – the proper and official observance of MLK Day,” Anthony said.
In regard to the Jefferson Hall incident last fall, Hurley said “I would be less than truthful if I didn’t admit that that incident and everything I learned from it did not influence my thinking.”
A mistake in the initial announcement, in which it appeared that the lost school day would be made up for by the first Monday during Spring Break, had some faculty confused.
A second e-mail clarified the misunderstanding, stating that no additional day was added to the academic calendar.
Beginning next year, the University will remain open as usual on the first Monday of Spring Break for all employees except teaching faculty.