by Micah Wilkins, Editor-in-ChiefA week before classes were supposed to start, many were surprised to receive an email from president Steve Solnick, announcing that classes would not be held on Martin Luther King, Jr. day, to observe this federal holiday.
Historically, Warren Wilson has always held classes on this day according to College Archivist Diana Sanderson. This year marks the first time that the college has recognized the holiday by canceling classes.
Though Solnick sent the e-mail to make the announcement, the decision to cancel classes was not entirely his decision. It was, rather, a community decision, prompted by discussions among faculty, staff and students. Last semester, a community meeting on scheduling was held, in which the issue of having classes on MLK day was raised. At a faculty retreat that took place a week before the semester began, teachers expressed “overwhelming support” for not holding classes.
“It’s clear that it’s something that’s been the subject of some attention in the community,” Solnick said.
In addition to the sentiments of the faculty and staff, two students reached out to Solnick directly.
Senior Anthony Barringer emailed the president over winter break, heiring his concerns.
“I am not sure who has control over this but since you are the head of the school I feel that you should know how myself and every other black student that I know on this campus feels,” Barringer wrote to Solnick. “I will not be attending any class on this day as it is a national holiday and I will be observing it as one.”
Barringer planned on going about the day in the same way as he did last year, by simply emailing his teachers ahead of time, letting them know he would not be attending class. But this year, after talking about it with his grandmother, he decided to reach out to Solnick.
“It’s a very important holiday for her because she lived through that era,” Barringer said. “She was really upset that we were scheduled to have classes. That really bothered me. I’d been thinking about it before, but that pushed me to [contact Solnick].”
Senior Raysean Love also joined in on the conversation, via email. He shared Barringer’s concerns.
“To [have classes on MLK day] would be like not honoring him, not respecting his legacy,” Love said. “It just doesn’t match up.”
Love and Barringer were both surprised when they learned, shortly after their email exchange with Solnick, that classes would not be held on MLK day.
“I was shocked. I had no hopes of any particular response,” Barringer said. “The whole purpose of the email was to let him know how I felt.”
According to Love, this decision to not have classes renewed his faith in Warren Wilson as an institution that is willing to change and progress, rather than just to talk about it.
“There’s a lot of talk about what could and should happen,” he said, “but it never manifests.”
At the dinner and performance Jan. 21 celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr., Love encountered Solnick as they were fixing their plates.
“He told me ‘don’t lose faith in the ability for the institution to change,’” Love said. “That was powerful for me. To me, it meant that if you lose faith, then the institution definitely won’t change because there’s no one to say it needs to be adjusted.”
In 1952, Warren Wilson became one of the first colleges to admit an African-American student, Alma Shippy, and not by a court order, but by invitation.
“How did we go from such a leadership position in the area of civil rights and social justice to being one of the last colleges in North Carolina to not hold classes on MLK day?” Solnick asked.
But it is not just Martin Luther King, Jr. day that has not been recognized on our campus. For as long as any staff or faculty can remember, the college has never recognized other important national holidays like Labor Day or Veterans Day.
According to Solnick, in the past the school’s approach to recognizing holidays has been an “egalitarian policy.”
“If some should work, all must work,” Solnick said. “The college considered itself in operation year-round.”
To Solnick, not holding classes on this important holiday is a step in the right direction for the college.
“One of the legacies of Martin Luther King, Jr. was the belief that institutions have the capacity to reform,” Solnick said. “We need to always continue to be vigilant and ensure our actions and our values are in harmony.”