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MLK Jr. Day event participation meets university expectations

Jan. 21 marked the first year Grand Valley State University officials made the decision to cancel classes in observation of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, holding a number of events in his legacy with hopes for student partcipation still high. Following final approval from the university’s Provost, Gayle Davis, it was announced that the decision would be revisited in five years to determine whether or not event turnout justified the amended scheduling.

Now that Martin Luther King Jr. Day has come and gone, university officials like Jessie Holland of GVSU’s Inclusion and Equity Office don’t see any reason for reinstatement of classes in the future.

“Based on the success that we experienced this year, we do not anticipate having classes on the holiday in the future,” Holland said. “We have shown that there was a pent-up demand from students and staff to be able to observe the holiday free from conflicting class obligations.”

Kathleen Underwood, a committee member on the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Executive Planning Committee, said about 500 people watched President Barack Obama’s inauguration in the Kirkhof Center, and the Silent March around campus that followed had around 150 participants.

“(The events) certainly provide evidence that students honored the spirit of the MLK holiday,” Underwood said.

Many GVSU students believed that the promise of no classes on MLK Day was put in place to encourage participation and attendance at the day’s events, but Underwood said that was not the intent.

“I am not sure where the idea comes from that this year was some sort of trial run to honor Dr. King,” Underwood said. “His birthday is a national holiday, like Labor Day. (What was) important about this year was how deeply involved students were in planning the events, just as they were in laying the groundwork with the ‘day on, not a day off’ campaign.”

Holland attributed some of the success of the filled and over-capacity events to the cancellation of classes.

“It absolutely helped,” Holland said. “By not holding classes on the holiday, students and faculty that wanted to observe the holiday at university events did not have to choose between doing so and attending or conducting class.”

Ricardo Benavidez, the Student Senate vice president of Diversity Affairs, said he has been a part of planning the MLK Day events since the summer. Benavidez said the reason behind the request for canceled classes was less about attendance at events and more about participation in general.

“It was not our thought or even hope that all students would go to the events,” Benavidez said. “We knew that when given the chance many students would take the extended weekend to go home. However, we wanted to give those who wished to attend, students and faculty alike, the chance to be able to without the conflicting schedules of classes.”

Benavidez said there were no restrictions set on the decision to cancel classes on MLK Day, but the choice could be reversed by the university at any time. He said it is unlikely to happen, though.

“We do not believe that will be happening any time soon, nor can we think of a reason why it would happen,” Benavidez said. “The number of participants at every event at this year’s celebration exceeded our expectations and we are sure that the university is proud of the numbers as well.”

Regardless of the status of GVSU classes on the holiday, Underwood said the university will continue to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. with the help of students and staff.

“As long as students are so invested in honoring Dr. King’s legacy, I am convinced the university will provide the time and space for that commemoration,” Underwood said.

khaight@lanthorn.com



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