Isaac Stanley-Becker, a senior at Yale University, writes about the ongoing debate about race on campus.
NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Elisia Ceballo-Countryman, a Yale sophomore, predicted that falling asleep in her dormitory Wednesday night would feel “violent.”
That is because the residential college in which she lives will continue to bear the name of John C. Calhoun, an 1804 graduate of Yale College and an intellectual forefather of the Confederacy who famously defended slavery as a “positive good.”
The university has decided not to strip Calhoun’s name from the college, so named in the 1930s, though it will drop the title “master” used for the faculty members who head Yale’s residential communities, following similar moves at Princeton and Harvard. Yale will also name its two new residential colleges, set to open in the fall of 2017, after Benjamin Franklin, the inventor and founding father, and Anna Pauline Murray, a lawyer and civil rights activist and the first black woman ordained as a priest in the Episcopalian church.
The decisions, announced in a Wednesday email from University President Peter Salovey, mark the latest chapter in a searing campus debate over names and symbols that appear to some as relics of white supremacy. The debate reached a fever pitch last fall, when incidents unrelated to the names — involving a fraternity party and Halloween attire — touched off protest among minority students who charged their university with treating them as second-class citizens.
As Salovey told aggrieved students in November that the university had “failed” them, the Ivy League school became one of a number of colleges and universities swept up in a national reckoning with racial inequities that have persisted in spite of formal equality. Where the fallout elsewhere unseated high-level university administrators, with the president and chancellor of the University of Missouri stepping down, Salovey responded quickly with a set of promises, including a renewed focus on faculty diversity and the creation of an academic center focusing on race and ethnic studies.
For months, however, the issue of the names, and the title “master,” remained unresolved, decisions belonging to the Yale Corporation, the university’s governing body. Salovey reported the decisions of that body, of which he is a member, in his university-wide announcement on Wednesday.
He said banishing Calhoun’s name would have been a disservice to Yale’s teaching mission, a move, he said, “that might allow us to feel complacent or, even, self-congratulatory” while hindering an honest reckoning with the past.
“Retaining the name forces us to learn anew and confront one of the most disturbing aspects of Yale’s and our nation’s past,” Salovey wrote. “I believe this is our obligation as an educational institution.”
Calhoun College, long a subject of disagreement owing to the legacy of its namesake, came under renewed scrutiny last summer, following the murder in Charleston, S.C., of nine black churchgoers by a man who exalted Confederate symbols. While the Confederate battle flag came down from capitol grounds in South Carolina, a petition at Yale calling for the renaming of Calhoun College has drawn more than 15,000 signatures. A raft of alternatives were offered — names as disparate as Frederick Douglass, the self-taught abolitionist, and Roosevelt Thompson, a model student who died in the spring of his senior year at Yale.
Meanwhile, the title of “master” came to the fore last summer when Stephen Davis, a scholar of religious studies who heads Yale’s Pierson College, wrote in an email to the Pierson community that he wished not to be addressed as “master.”
“I think there should be no context in our society or in our university in which an African-American student, professor, or staff member — or any person, for that matter — should be asked to call anyone ‘master,’” Davis wrote in August 2015, drawing praise from those who said the title unnerved them and disparagement from some who said the title was simply borrowed from Oxford and Cambridge, where it bore no relationship to the system of chattel slavery that now colors American perception of the word.
Yale’s peer institutions moved more quickly to banish “master,” with Princeton changing the title to “head of college” in November 2015 and Harvard opting for “faculty dean” in February of this year. Yale will change the title to “head of college,” Salovey wrote. While the honorific derives from the Latin word magister, the title, Salovey acknowledged, “carries a painful and unwelcome connotation.” He said on a call with reporters Wednesday evening that the title serves no educational purpose, and was therefore worth eliminating.
But keeping the name of Calhoun College, Salovey wrote in his email, represents a “vital educational imperative” — the pursuit of a more thorough engagement with the past. He said the university would be looking for new means of highlighting Yale’s history, describing an “interactive history project” involving an examination of Calhoun’s legacy as well as “the lesser-known people, events, and narratives behind the familiar facades we see as we walk through the campus.”
Princeton’s Board of Trustees made a similar decision in voting to retain the name of Woodrow Wilson on campus buildings, after the former president’s legacy came under sharp attack.
At Princeton Wednesday, officials announced a change made in response to protests over race this fall: They will remove a wall-sized photograph of Woodrow Wilson from a dining hall, because of concerns some students raised that his legacy as a university and national leader was tarnished by his segregationist views.
Salovey said he sympathized with students who were troubled by the decision to keep Calhoun but suggested that “the more we confront and discuss issues that are deeply troubling to us, for example the issue of slavery, John C. Calhoun’s role in it, the more we can understand them, the more we can fight for a different kind of future than perhaps the one we’re experiencing now.”
But Ceballo-Countryman, who is black and Latina, said the announcement reveals that the university’s attempts to engage with students following last semester’s protests were hollow.
“What I’m feeling right now is a deep state of mourning,” she said. “After they made students of color sit through a year of discussions, opening up about deep racial pain, they say we can’t change it. There’s no other way for me to interact with this university any more other than to be apathetic.”
The experience of living in Calhoun, she said, “has becoming increasingly violent.” She said she hopes to find a way to transfer to another residential college.
Others said Salovey’s reasoning resonated with them. Hasan Hanif, also a sophomore in Calhoun, said he saw little reason to erase names.
“Changing the name doesn’t make a difference,” Hanif said. “What matters is what you think about the larger issue.”
Dianne Lake, a senior who is black, said she noticed a “paradox” in the university’s decisions, which “moved one step forward” in honoring Murray but “one step, if not two steps, back” by naming the other new college after Franklin, who owned slaves, though he ultimately freed them.
Salovey said the suggestion of Franklin College came from Charles B. Johnson, an alumnus and former chairman of the investment firm Franklin Resources. Johnson, who considers the founding father a role model, made the new colleges possible in 2013 with a $250 million gift, the largest in Yale’s history.”
“Charlie Johnson did not require that we name that college for anyone as a condition of his gift,” Salovey said Wednesday night. “He asked us when he made his gift — and I really want you to remember that this is the largest single gift ever given to Yale — he asked us to consider Benjamin Franklin as the namesake of a college.”
Lake said that naming the college for Franklin represents “another step into the past,” rather than moving into the future. Most vexing, she said, is the university’s strategic use of the past in defending Calhoun College. She said little has been done to educate students about Calhoun’s legacy — and it is not clear to her how the new initiative will change that.
She said students troubled by the decisions were meeting to figure out a course of action, noting that the announcement came at “a strategically difficult time for students” — right at the end of the semester. She said she still expected mobilization at some point.
A Yale Police officer was stationed outside of Calhoun Wednesday night, and said it was his understanding that an officer would be there through the night.