Opinion: Law School Should Take Off Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

Ben Lucy ‘20
Staff Editor

On Monday, most of the United States observed Martin Luther King Jr. Day (“MLK Day”), a federal holiday that commemorates the birth and life of the civil rights leader of the same name. Public schools, post offices, and even the New York Stock Exchange were closed in observance of the holiday. Our Law School was not.[1]


To my knowledge, our Law School is alone in refusing to honor MLK Day.[2] I conducted an informal poll of friends who attend other law schools, from Harvard to UNLV to Georgetown to Alabama. None of them had class on Monday. Moreover, each of them was bewildered when I told them UVA didn’t observe the holiday, and some of them didn’t even believe me.


I love this Law School. I am so fortunate to have had the opportunity to study here, and I especially appreciate the rich tradition of civil rights scholarship and advocacy the Law School has produced. In particular, I find our dean to be an inspiring person. Dean Goluboff’s scholarship and teaching have had an enormously positive impact on civil rights in the academy and the world at large. In an interview, she once said, “We need to…train our students not to be passive recipients of information but to empower them so that they understand the role they play in the legal system and the legal process. . .This is a law school that cares about our students, our faculty, our staff as whole people.”[3] I want her to be right.


But this is a place with deep scars. Nearby on Main Grounds, undergraduate tour guides wrestle with the legacy of slavery and face difficult questions about the persistent lack of diversity at the University. The Law School faces its own diversity problems. With a student body that is significantly less diverse than the general population, the Law School struggles to be a welcoming environment for minority students. It is not unusual for me to take a class where I have zero, one or two classmates who are persons of color. Five of the ten students whose biographies are listed on the Law School’s diversity webpage are not even current students. Frankly, I cannot imagine the resilience it takes for those students to look around them and see so many people who look like me and so few people who don’t. I cannot understand how anyone who works here could fail to imagine how those students must have felt sitting in class on Monday.


Law school administrators face many difficult decisions. Whether to observe a federal holiday is not one of them. If an administration cancels classes for a holiday, it signals that the benefits of observing the holiday exceed its costs and necessarily makes a value statement. And if it does not cancel classes for a holiday, that administration sends a clear message that observing the holiday is less important than maintaining regular operations. That necessarily is a value statement, too.


I believe both of Dean Goluboff’s statements. This is a law school that cares about its stakeholders as whole people. And I hope that we as a student body can send our own message to help the administration understand the harm that is done by not celebrating MLK Day. If I’m right, things will change. And I believe the Law School does teach us not to be passive recipients of legal knowledge. If I’m right, this student body will not sit passively and endure the symbolic insult of ignoring MLK Day for another year.



[1] Darden, for example, rearranged its entire weekly schedule to allow students to participate in a service day on Monday.

[2] The Law School does not observe several federal holidays, including Veterans Day, Labor Day, and President’s Day. I take it to be painfully obvious how absolutely vacuous that statement is as a justification for failing to observe this one. I have written here about MLK Day because it occurred this week and because I believe the Law School’s failure to observe it is uniquely harmful. But I also believe the Law School harms its stakeholders and its brand by failing to observe Labor Day and Veterans Day. I do not care about President’s Day but would welcome another long weekend if consistency is an important goal of the Law School’s academic calendar.

[3] Meet Dean Risa Goluboff, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DLDYQzNi2aw.