MLK Scholarship needs ‘magis’


A critique of an important SLU scholarship

St. Ignatius of Loyola emphasized the purpose of human existence as to “praise, revere and serve God,” or “Ad majorem Dei gloriam.” Related to this Latin phrase is the word “magis,” which means “do better.” Magis matters in university settings to students as they better themselves on their journey to graduate, but it also matters to committee members who create rules for and oversee social justice scholarships.

Many saw the opening up of the Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship beyond incoming freshmen as an indication signaling an end of its problematic tradition and as an opportunity. That current SLU students would not be rewarded for radical social justice work under a scholarship that incentivizes social justice work may indicate a symptomatic issue inherent to the MLK Scholarship.

The MLK does not prioritize radical social justice work, but its optics. Radical social justice is advocacy in service of institutional change –, not advocacy in service of perceived change.

The criteria for an MLK scholar needs a recalibration towards its supposed social justice tenets. The current requirements basically read as such: Are you a freshman, sophomore or junior SLU student? Can you fill out this MLK scholarship application? How well can you write a scholarship essay? Where is your resume? Let us see two letters of recommendation. Also, do you have the minimum 3.0 GPA?

Clearly how a candidate looks is preferred over who, where, and what the candidate has been or is about. For a scholarship that is supposed to prioritize social justice, one would expect more than a scholarship essay.

Once scholars join MLK, they are not held to any level of accountability for continuing social justice, and many current scholars take advantage of that. When there was an unprecedented occupation of SLU’s campus, there was never any sign of organized leadership from our MLK scholars.

Finding out who is responsible for the tremendous apathy that week may lead to some sort of accountability. There are no measures in place to ensure that MLK scholars are at the forefront in carrying out Dr. King’s ideals; Ferguson was just another predictable opportunity missed.

The real work of MLK scholars is praised, but often not backed by incentive. Incentives must integrate the real work with student life by providing assistance that will overcome simple limitations: retention, community and transportation. Without any aid, a complex naturally emerges where students feel that they have to choose between fighting for the right cause and studying for the right grades – not to mention financing cost of attendance the right way. End-of-the-year-reception accolades do not come with increased funding to support ongoing efforts.

The MLK Scholarship remains a program without funding and focus required to encourage radical social justice work. The only difference between MLK and more highly incentivized programs is its social justice purpose.

For example, the Presidential Scholarship – which awards full tuition ($38,700) and a community program that provides up to $1,200 for scholar’s projects – asks for exemplary academic and disciplinary standing, but nothing in terms of social justice standing. Meanwhile, MLK recipients receive an average amount of $24,000 a year.

The disparities between MLK and Presidential scholarships suggest that if you get good grades you will be honored, but if you are fighting for change, you are more disposable. The social justice component of MLK is rooted in our university mission’s “service of humanity” just as much as the intellectual “pursuit of truth.” Can you imagine if we valued social justice as we did academics?

MLK continues to struggle with issues of diversity. Part of this rests in the fact that SLU does not appeal to black students for reasons stated below. This year, MLK received only two black scholars for its incoming freshmen class. In the St. Louis American, I write extensively about how the purpose of a scholarship in the name and honor of an activist who rallied for black uplift cannot be fulfilled without its recipients being majority black. That is because black students who are affected by racial oppression are best equipped to move the meter forward in terms of racial social justice. Therefore, we need to look for and support them.

Some of their struggles include having significant communal space replaced by a majority white SGA and being relegated to a closet in the Center for Global Citizenship; being tokenized or asked to “speak for” our race by often-well-intentioned white professors, on a predominately white campus, located in a nearly half-black St. Louis (49.2% 2010 census); and forgiving racist insults by unassuming white Billikens. Meanwhile, black student percentages at SLU remain at six percent. This is an issue for MLK because it has failed to live in the tradition left by its parent, the Calloway scholarship, which was established to recruit black students.

MLK Committee and Saint Louis University: We need “magis.”

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