Martin Luther King Jr. Day
January 13, 2023
To the Campus Community,
This Monday, January 16, Stony Brook University will observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Classes will not be in session, and academic and administrative offices along with Stony Brook Child Care Services will be closed. The Hospital, Long Island State Veterans Home, and Stony Brook Medicine outpatient facilities will maintain normal operations.
As a campus, and across the state of New York and the nation, we take time to reflect on the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr., the visionary and tireless advocate for civil rights and racial equality. The power of his speeches and writings galvanized the nation. He was able to turn painful truths into poetry, and poetry into a concrete call to action. That urgent call–which among many things emphasized the importance of working together, side by side, to achieve a more just and equitable society–was heard by countless brave civil rights activists throughout the twentieth century. It still rings just as loudly today.
Nearly 60 years ago in the summer of 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to civil rights marchers at the Lincoln Memorial. His speech to them, “I Have a Dream,” stands as one of the best known and most important speeches in American history. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we frequently hear its concluding paragraphs invoked to help us remember Dr. King’s life and his truly transformative actions for civil rights. Now, in the 60-year anniversary of “I Have a Dream,” I believe it is worth revisiting that speech, reflecting on its call, and asking ourselves what this community can do to realize its vision.
The opening of Dr. King’s speech is rooted in the symbolism of its setting and the historical moment. Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial 100 years after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Dr. King noted that even after a century, Black Americans were still not free.
He drew upon the promises in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, reminding his audience that those documents had guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And yet, he said, “It is obvious that America has defaulted on this promissory note.” In a way unique to Dr. King, he was consistently able to redirect his audience through the present moment and beyond, to the promise of possibility in the future. “But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt,” he said. “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.”
Just as Dr. King was using the historical moment to reflect, 60 years later we should be asking ourselves: Where are we today on this promissory note, these “promises of democracy?” In 2023, we face a challenging world of deeply entrenched inequities that disproportionately impact marginalized groups, including a climate emergency, health disparities, extreme housing and food insecurity, the fraying of democratic norms, and a long-overdue racial reckoning. And in higher education nationally, there remain stark disparities in degree attainment and employment outcomes between historically advantaged groups and historically disadvantaged groups (particularly students from lower-income families and underrepresented racial and ethnic populations). Despite higher education’s capacity to be the most powerful pathway for socioeconomic mobility, not all Americans have equal access to it.
Last November, I participated in a panel on the Boyer 2030 Commission Report, “The Equity/Excellence Imperative: A 2030 Blueprint for Undergraduate Education at U.S. Research Universities.” University leaders from across the country discussed strategies for nurturing equity within our respective institutions, returning to the fact that equity and excellence are mutually dependent. The report notes that for a research institution to reach its highest levels of excellence, it must nurture diverse perspectives and equitable practices that empower underrepresented students to help shape our collective future. For an institution to be truly equitable, the education it offers must be excellent and competitive. To quote from the report, “excellence without equity (privilege reproducing privilege) is not true excellence, and equity (mere access) without excellence is unfulfilled promise.”
I am proud that Stony Brook University embraces this imperative. We remain one of the top schools in the nation for promoting socioeconomic mobility and must continue to be laser focused on fostering equity and diversity within our world-class programs. Excellence founded on equity. This is how higher education can play a pivotal role in restoring the fractured idea of the American dream—a dream that Dr. King helped define and believed was possible.
“I Have a Dream” elucidates as much, with a call to action and sense of possibility: “I say to you today, my friends. So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.” The power of Martin Luther King Jr.'s words comes from his artistry, delivery, poetry, and critical intelligence. And perhaps his words continue to resonate so strongly, six decades later, because of a profound sense of hope. By working together and standing in solidarity with one another, we can create a more just and equitable society for all.
Every single one of us has the power to help build a more just future. Every one of
us at Stony Brook University—in our classrooms, in our laboratories, in our clinics,
in our performance spaces, in our offices, and in our communities—can continue to
help realize this important and enduring dream. It is our responsibility and our privilege.
I am grateful for the bravery of Dr. King and the many people—past, present, and future—working
every day toward an equitable society for all.