The Friday Letter Archive

A collection of the president's weekly messages to the Vandal family


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Friday Letter 2017-01-20:
Changing 'The Way It Is'

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On Monday, we celebrated Martin Luther King Jr.-Idaho Human Rights Day. It’s a chance to honor the progress of civil rights in our country and our state, to continue to that work through local service, and to reflect on the future we want to see in the world.

Let me share one story. When I taught at the University of Kentucky, the university encouraged faculty members to honor Dr. King in some way, but we did not have the day off — classes were held. For several years, as a relatively new teacher, I didn’t know how to honor the day. Mostly, I could not think how Dr. King was relevant to the microbiology or genetics I was teaching. 

In 1994, Mary Beth and I purchased a home that had been part of a development in 1948. The deed had a restriction that was common in 1948, but that anyone today would recognize as illegal and immoral. The deed said that we could not sell or rent our property “to any Negro or mulatto,” in the language of that time, nor to any “association” of the same. Furthermore, an African-American could reside on the property, but only in the capacity of a domestic servant.

I was so struck by this deed that for years, each Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I projected it for the 150 students in my genetics class and asked them what they thought. Undergraduates are often shy about responding to any question, but eventually a student would volunteer that it was illegal, and that it was wrong. Sometimes they would use even stronger language.

I agreed, of course, and pointed out that this clause was common in 1948, found even up until 1960 in Lexington. In part because of the heroic actions of people like Dr. King, we now recognized how wrong such discrimination is. I would then ask the class to cast themselves back 40 years, though, back to when their grandparents might have been students in the class. What would they have thought? That’s a tougher question. Some would have been upset. But many people in 1955 would have thought this was a routine fact of life, not an injustice — “just the way it is.”

So I asked my students, and it remains worth considering: 40 years from today, what will your grandchildren marvel at that we didn’t see in the same way?

Today, we undoubtedly still have blind spots. I am proud, though, of how our students, staff and leadership come together with meaningful programming — seminars, food drives, community events and more — around this special day. That spirit of service and struggle builds on a wonderful legacy, helping ensure that in the years to come we will live in a better world, and look back with pride on progress.

Go Vandals!
Chuck Staben