MLK Ph.D. program fuels 21st century activism

This week, students and scholars from around the country will meet in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky for Union Institute & University's MLK studies residency, which serves as a part to Union's larger cohort program.
The MLK studies program, currently in its fifth year, is offered through Union's philosophy Ph.D program, taught primarily online. The program spans three years of coursework and provides three concentrations: Ethical and Creative Leadership, Humanities and Culture, and Public Policy and Social Change.
"The focus is thinking about King's work in the 21st century—how his legacy and how his work continues on in our lives," says Andrea Scarpino, an MLK studies committee member. "All of our students are very actively engaged in social justice issues, so we have people who come to us with big political backgrounds, real deep interest in poverty or incarceration, people who are really actively engaged in changing the world through their communities on a daily basis."
This year, the one-week residency will be held at the METS Center in Erlanger, KY, January 5-9.
"The residency is a place where we all begin our seminars, but we also have these other scholarly activities," Scarpino says.  "We really try to create this environment that we would have if we were a traditional brick and mortar institution."
Scarpino, who teaches creative writing at Union, has been involved with the MLK studies program since its conception by Nancy Boxill, the program's coordinator.
"[Boxill] created [MLK studies] as a way to extend Union's mission in social justice, thinking about Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy as it continues in 2014," Scarpino says. "As soon as [Boxill] brought specialization to Union, I became interested."
The residency features a series of activities intended to connect students and faculty in person over the course of one week, providing a transition into the next semester.
"The rest of the semester we communicate usually online," Scarpino says. "We have forum discussions, we might have video conferencing, phone conversations—we have a whole lot of techniques that professors use to stay in contact with their students."
The MLK studies community uses the residency as a transition to the online format in the following semester.
"The important thing is really grounding that work in residency," Scarpino says. "Having all of the faculty and all of the students together in one place for that one week to connect so that the rest of the semester is a success."
While students in the MLK specialization form their dissertation and coursework around their interests in MLK Jr. and his legacy, they take all of the same classes as other philosophy Ph.D students.
"They often become interested in studying because they're already doing so much work that is similar to King's legacy," Scarpino says. "They're already actively involved in their communities. They're organizing political events, organizing marches, for example—they're doing all sorts of direct actions that fulfill a lot of King's legacy and mission, in terms of creating justice for all."
The residency is divided into three primary affairs: the MLK Legacy Lecture & Luncheon, conference series and workshops.
"We have the MLK specialization lecture and luncheon, and we also have a conference day where students and faculty present material and papers that they're working on," Scarpino says. "We have all sorts of scholarly activities that happen over the course of the residency, as well as kind of fun activities—a dance party night, open-mic night, a creative reading series."
For students, each day during the residency likely involves seminars from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
"You might have two three-hour seminars over the course of a day," Scarpino says. "You might be meeting with your dissertation advisor, you might be going to MLK specialization events, doing administrative work at the university—it's just really, really packed days."
Stewart Burns will deliver a keynote speech during the lecture and luncheon. Burns is a former editor of the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers at Stanford University and author of the Wilbur Award-winning MLK Jr. biography "To the Mountaintop"
"[Burns] was chosen as an MLK scholar to come in and share his knowledge and expertise with the specialization community, as well as the larger Union community, and really with the larger Cincinnati community," Scarpino says. "Every time we have an MLK event, we open it up to the larger community as a means of sharing our scholarship that's happening at Union to keep the community involved with the King legacy."
Burns' lecture will be held at the METS Center from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Thursday, January 9, and is open to the public.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Kyle Stone.

Kyle is a freelance writer based in Cincinnati. When he isn't writing, he's making music, riding his bike and taking photos of his adventures.