I was just catching up with a friend about the plunging temperatures in the towns that we live in, and they brought up that they actually have classes today, on Martin Luther King day, which is a national holiday.

Shouldn't colleges observe national holidays and give faculty, students and staff the day off?

(If location matters, we're in the Northeast region.)

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    And here I am at work on a national holiday, at a US national lab. (In my case, the lab works a bunch of the minor federal holidays and we take Christmas to New Years off instead). Unless it is a federal college, they don't have to take MLK off, and not taking it off may work out better with respect to class schedules and making up the time (most federal holidays are Mondays, so that messes with Monday classes way more than other days, for example).
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Jan 21, 2019 at 15:38
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    @SolarMike: Each state sets its own holidays. Most of them observe most or all of the federal holidays, but they can leave some out if they choose, and/or add more of their own. However, universities aren't necessarily required to observe state holidays either, not even state universities. Commented Jan 21, 2019 at 15:55
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    This is probably a better question at politics.se as they can probably tell you the underlying reasons.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Jan 21, 2019 at 15:56
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    I think part of the issue here is the difference between a 'federal holiday' and a 'national holiday'. The US has the former, but not the latter. US Federal holidays are not binding on non-federal (US government) entities.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Jan 21, 2019 at 17:46
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    Note that class breaks and faculty/staff holidays are not necessarily equivalent. Some schools give staff a day off on certain holidays but continue to hold classes, those required to teach are entitled a discretionary day off. Conversely, student holidays, like spring break or study periods, do not apply to faculty or staff.
    – user71659
    Commented Jan 21, 2019 at 21:13

7 Answers 7


Penn State had no classes on MLK day but required staff to be in the office. Students carried out public service (or went drinking).

We also ignored Presidents' Day and Columbus Day completely.


The observance of holidays in the United States is a complicated issue.

Holidays declared by the federal government are generally (but not universally) observed by state governments, which oversee public universities here. Private institutions, on the other hand, have no obligation to observe those holidays, and can choose to close or remain open according to their own decisions about what best serves their students’ needs. For example, my undergraduate institution did not take any days off from the first day of classes in the fall semester, but did provide a week’s break corresponding to Thanksgiving. It’s an unusual arrangement but perfectly legal.

It should also be mentioned that while universities have core “business hours” where faculty are expected to be present, in reality, faculty largely choose their own working hours.

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    Moreover, it can even happen that public (state) universities don't observe the holidays that their state government does. Commented Jan 21, 2019 at 17:31

Academics don't normally get "days off". Holidays are just work days by another name. Note that in the US, there are almost no National Universities (the service universities like West Point being the major exception). Most universities are actually independent of any government control though almost all have some government (usually State) oversight.

Many universities also recognize a number of religious holidays and these vary depending on the location. In New York, for example, many don't hold classes on Jewish holidays. This sometimes makes it difficult to put together a schedule meeting all constraints.

So, it varies and there is not general rule. Some holidays are more likely to be taken than others, also. But still, it can vary. It can even vary at the same institution from year to year.

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    – eykanal
    Commented Jan 24, 2019 at 3:15

The key point is that Martin Luther King Day is a federal holiday, and only the federal government is bound to observe those. State governments and private corporations are free to choose their own holiday schedules.

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    Isn't that true for all US holidays? There's nothing unique about MLK Day in this respect.
    – Barmar
    Commented Jan 22, 2019 at 1:22
  • @Barmar - MLK day is one of the federal holidays. States and "private sector employers" are free to choose their own public holidays. (my point being, what's a "US holiday" ... ? - the first question you always have to ask someone is if they have it off anyway)
    – Mazura
    Commented Jan 22, 2019 at 15:16
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    Aren't Independence Day and President's Day also federal holidays? What were you trying to suggest by singling out MLK Day? Or is it just because it's the one mentioned in the question?
    – Barmar
    Commented Jan 22, 2019 at 21:03
  • @Barmar This answer talks about all federal holidays, and uses MLK Day as an example, since it was the example in the question. I don't see what your problem with this answer is...
    – user91988
    Commented Jan 22, 2019 at 22:35
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    When I first read it, I interpreted it as saying something special about MLK Day, not just using it as an example of federal holidays. It could be noted that some federal holidays are observed more widely than others -- there are practically no private or public organizations that don't observe Independence Day, and it took 14 years for all states to make MLK Day a state holiday.
    – Barmar
    Commented Jan 22, 2019 at 22:43

It's common in the US for some more recent Federal holidays to not be observed by a lot of the private sector or even state government. MLK, Veteran's Day, Columbus Day are the ones.

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    Also Washington's Birthday (a.k.a. Presidents' Day.)
    – reirab
    Commented Jan 21, 2019 at 20:49
  • @reirab - and Lincoln's birthday as well. They used to be two separate days off from school (since their birthdays are different), but both in February. Then President's day condensed it to one...
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Jan 21, 2019 at 22:14
  • Related reading: Observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day (from Wikipedia).
    – J.R.
    Commented Jan 23, 2019 at 15:12

My institution has a very tight, set schedule that relies on classes beginning and ending on certain days—many years our first day of class is actually Labor Day.

Beyond the logistical concerns, our community also had a conversation specifically about the best way to observe Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. This was before my time here, but the consensus between both faculty and concerned students was that it would be better to hold classes and have events on campus focused on MLK's legacy, rather than treating it like a vacation day. My children's schools have made a similar choice. This is also the practice for Veteran's Day and, to a lesser extent, a few other holidays.

Personally, I can appreciate the philosophy that it's better to actively celebrate these civic holidays* as an academic community, rather than celebrating mainly by sleeping in or going shopping—even if sometimes it feels like we're the only people in the state who have to work on a given day.

*Labor Day is in a rather different category, since it was initially conceived specifically as a day of rest for laborers.


In addition to what others have posted, my university would forgo minor holidays (like Labor Day, Columbus Day, etc.) and give us a week off in the Fall and the Spring semesters. So, overall, we traded a bunch of 3 day weekends for 2 discrete, but longer periods off.

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    Interesting that you consider Labor Day a minor holiday on a similar level to Columbus Day. In my experience, almost everybody has Labor Day off while Columbus Day is much more of a mixed bag.
    – Daniel
    Commented Jan 22, 2019 at 15:49

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