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MLK, RBG, & Intellectual Leadership

Rich Egger

Over the winter holidays, I've been thinking about how much my husband and I, as Western Illinois University alumni, have benefited from the liberal arts-based education we received here.

Also during break, WIU president Jack Thomas and the University Professionals of Illinois, Local 4100 (UPI) have been preparing for good-faith negotiations to protect our historic liberal arts-based curriculum, and I had been wondering how, under anti-education demands from an extremely wealthy governor, our leaders will remain committed to our values.

Then Santa gave me an inspiring book, The Notorious RBG, which tells the story of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dedication to protecting equal citizenship.  She quotes Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  In his fight for civil rights, King revived the abolitionist sentiment that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but bends toward justice.” King’s rhetoric helped pave the way for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but in 2013, when the Supreme Court began to dismantle the VRA, Justice Ginsburg, reading her dissent, referenced King’s moral arc, then added, “if there is a steadfast commitment to see the task through to completion.”

In Macomb, IL, the task that we must see through to completion is the defense of Western’s core values. As stated on the website, “WIU’s highly qualified, diverse faculty promotes critical thinking.” WIU’s core of “critical thinking” is the College of Arts and Sciences, where we read, think, talk, and write about reading.  Though my husband is an economist, we agree that our liberal arts-based WIU education has grounded our advanced degrees.  

Critical thinking, though, is morally empty without WIU’s commitment to “equity, social justice, and diversity.”  Some folks have told me that advocating diversity of professors and curriculum is “uncivil” and misguided, but this prejudice collapses under recent research that diversity literally makes us smarter.  Diversity makes education higher.  Here, as well, we can look to Justice Ginsburg:  when a conservative court tramples on diversity, she reads her dissents, even as Justice Alito rolls his eyes in disrespect.

Credit Rich Egger
Holly Stovall

Dr. King cared about equity, one of WIU’s core values.  That is why he supported unions for people who make things. What professors make is meaning and knowledge, the stuff that makes us human, and we will not sell our souls.

During his 1965 visit to Springfield, Il, Dr. King professed his belief in both intellectuals and unions.  He said, “It is a mark of our intellectual backwardness that these monumental achievements of labor are still only dimly seen.”  Recently, wealthy politicians have demonized unions, but less unions means more poverty.  King was murdered while organizing public sector employees—not unlike the unionized faculty and staff at WIU.

This threat to the UPI and WIU occurs during the tenure of our first president who is not a white man.  If we allow him to fail, an unspoken myth could spread that only white men should run Western.  Personally, I look forward to seeing a woman president of WIU, and our support for Dr. Thomas’s success will open doors for that day-- if his and our commitment to Western’s core values remains steadfast. 

But a broken union of professors would constitute a devaluation of rigorously trained scholars and a failure to honor the intellectual leadership of both Dr. King and Justice Ginsburg.

Very wealthy politicians threaten Western’s values of academic excellence, diversity, equity, and justice, but Martin Luther King’s legacy and Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissents inspire our efforts to remain committed to deeper and higher values.  Dissents are dreams for the future.

Holly Stovall is an Assistant Professor of Women’s Studies at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcome and encouraged.