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Yale renames Calhoun College because of historical ties to white supremacy and slavery

A view of Calhoun College. (Michael Marsland/Yale University)

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Yale University will rename one of its residential colleges, replacing the name of an alumnus remembered as an advocate of slavery with that of an alumna who was a pioneering mathematician and computer scientist who helped transform the way people use technology.

“The minute that the announcement came out, people stuck their heads out of the window and yelled, ‘Wahoo!’ ” said Julia Adams, a sociology professor who is head of the just-renamed Grace Murray Hopper College.

The decision to rename Calhoun College reverses one made last spring, when Yale President Peter Salovey said he did not want to erase history, but confront it and learn from it.

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Colleges across the country — as well as other institutions, cities and legislative bodies — have wrestled with similar questions, as they consider monuments to the past in the context of modern life. Racial tensions and protests have intensified those debates in many places, as well as anger from some about “political correctness” forcing schools to whitewash history.

At Harvard Law School, officials replaced a shield that was the family crest of slave owners. At the University of North Carolina, officials renamed a hall that had honored a leader of the Ku Klux Klan. At Princeton, university leaders chose not to remove the name of Woodrow Wilson as protesters had demanded, instead pledging to be transparent about his failings, such as his support for segregation, as well as his achievements leading the university and the country.

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Salovey said Saturday that he still believes in the importance of confronting history rather than erasing it. But a committee led by a historian crafted a set of four principles for considering renaming — starting with a strong presumption against it, but establishing a means for evaluating the idea in exceptional circumstances, such as when the principal legacy of the person is fundamentally at odds with the values of the institution.

That was true of U.S. Vice President John C. Calhoun, Salovey said, “a white supremacist, an ardent defender of slavery as ‘a positive good,’ someone whose views hardened over the course of his life, who died essentially criticizing the Declaration of Independence and its emphasis on all men being created equal. …

“I think we can make this change without effacing history. We’re not removing evidence of John C. Calhoun from our campus.”

By the beginning of the next academic year, the name of alumna Grace Murray Hopper will be added to the building, and the residential college will be known by that name. Students’ T-shirts will have the Hopper name. They won’t chisel off the “Calhoun” or remove other traces of him on campus. They have removed stained-glass windows from the college — one of which portrayed enslaved people picking cotton — and will display them elsewhere with an explanation of the historical context.

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The legacy of Calhoun, who graduated from Yale in 1804 and 1822 and served as a U.S. vice president, secretary of state, secretary of war and senator, becoming an influential champion of slavery, had been debated at the school over the years. But those discussions turned to urgent pleas in 2015 after a white man who revered the Confederacy fatally shot nine black worshipers at a church in Charleston, S.C. That led South Carolina lawmakers to take down the Confederate flag that had long flown at the state Capitol, and efforts at Yale and elsewhere to stop honoring the name of Calhoun and other people associated with slavery and white supremacy.

That fall, protests over racial issues erupted on campus, and Salovey promised changes, including a more diverse faculty and a new center for studies of race and ethnicity. But university leaders resisted demands to drop the Calhoun name.

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Last spring, Salovey said in a letter to the campus community that deleting the name “might allow us to feel complacent or, even, self-congratulatory. … Retaining the name forces us to learn anew and confront one of the most disturbing aspects of Yale’s and our nation’s past. I believe this is our obligation as an educational institution.”

But in August, he asked a committee to establish principles to guide university leaders when considering renaming. They concluded with four things to think about: Whether the principal legacy of the person is fundamentally at odds with the university’s mission; whether that legacy was debated during the person’s life; why the person was honored by the university; and whether the building has an important role in creating community on campus.

“In considering these principles,” Salovey said in a letter to the university Saturday, “it became clear that Calhoun College presents an exceptionally strong case — perhaps uniquely strong — that allows it to overcome the powerful presumption against renaming.”

He quoted another graduate — the namesake of another residential college at Yale, Benjamin Silliman — who denounced Calhoun’s legacy even as he mourned his death, writing that he “in a great measure changed the state of opinion and the manner of speaking and writing upon this subject in the South, until we have come to present to the world the mortifying and disgraceful spectacle of a great republic — and the only real republic in the world — standing forth in vindication of slavery, without prospect of, or wish for, its extinction. If the views of Mr. Calhoun, and of those who think with him, are to prevail, slavery is to be sustained on this great continent forever.”

Salovey said: “This principal legacy of Calhoun — and the indelible imprint he has left on American history — conflicts fundamentally with the values Yale has long championed. Unlike other namesakes on our campus, he distinguished himself not in spite of these views but because of them.”

A group of advisers asked to consider the issue unanimously concluded that the name should be changed, and the Yale Corporation voted Friday in agreement.

The Yale Corporation considered alternatives from a shortlist of the hundreds of names recommended by many students, alumni, faculty and others, and chose Grace Murray Hopper, who had been endorsed by the most people as reflective of Yale’s core values.

Adams, who said students rushed to her house to celebrate as soon as the announcement was made, credited students with having an effect on not just the Hopper name but also on one of the new residential colleges slated to open in the fall, which honors civil rights activist Pauli Murray, who was black.

Adams said she was delighted at Hopper’s name as well. “She was an amazing woman — her work in the sciences, her dedication to her country through serving in the military, her personal wit and so many things about her make her an absolutely wonderful choice.”

Elisia Ceballo-Countryman, a junior, was celebrating the name change with fellow students in Hopper College on Saturday afternoon, but she said she was disappointed in the way the Yale administration handled a “long, drawn-out and exhausting” renaming process. She said the college should have honored a black person given the history of racism attached to the Calhoun name.

Senior Lindsey Hogg said that during the debates about Calhoun, she had advocated for Henry Roe Cloud, the first Native American to graduate from Yale. Another popular option was Roosevelt Thompson, an African American graduate of Yale known for his academic achievements and dedication to public service. But Hogg, like many other students, said she was excited about Hopper. “No matter how you look at this, it’s a win,” she said. “Yale did the right thing, finally.”

She said she was proud to be in the first class to graduate with the Hopper name. An email from Jonathan Holloway, the dean of Yale College, to students Saturday afternoon said the official name change will be July 1, but that students were welcome to begin using the new name immediately. School officials will be talking about how to proceed with the name change through the diploma ceremony this spring, he said. Calhoun College alumni can change their affiliation to Hopper if they wish, or retain the Calhoun name.

Students are randomly assigned to one of a dozen, soon to be 14, residential colleges at Yale, which create smaller communities and often strongly held identities within the large research university. So the name itself, while symbolic, has a depth of meaning and enduring memories connected with it for many students and graduates.

Max Walden, a Yale graduate student in the history department, opposes the name change. “I’m not of the camp that’s trying to keep the name on the merits of Calhoun the man,” he said. “It’s on the merits of historical rigor and taking the long view, because we ourselves will be subject to the kind of judgment that Calhoun is undergoing right now.”

Walden said that as a university community, Yale should be taking a rigorous and intellectual view of Calhoun’s legacy and confronting the past instead of scrubbing the name and caving into current political pressure.

As a historian, Walden believes that attitudes toward the past change throughout time — in the 1930s, he said, Calhoun’s principal legacy was one of public service to his country, and his defense of slavery came as a secondary concern when Yale decided to honor him; today, his principal legacy is undoubtedly tied to racism and slavery.

Walden worries that the administration is initiating a process of questioning principal legacies that will affect many namesakes currently on campus.

He pointed to the Schwarzman Center, a student center named after billionaire alumnus Stephen A. Schwarzman that will open in 2020, as an example. A hundred years from now, Walden said students might look back at the community’s decision to honor Schwarzman today and view Schwarzman’s legacy of “grotesque wealth and contributions to economic inequality” with disgust.

Holloway, who served on the committee that determined the principles for consideration of renaming, said Saturday they were very clear that times change and sensitivities change. “Just as we look back at the decision in the 1930s to name the college after Calhoun with bewilderment,” he said, they recognize that at some point in the future, people could say of the decision to change the name, “‘What were they thinking?’”

Over time, he said, “the notion of who’s a Yalie has changed radically,” with a student body far more diverse in every way. “We need to be aware of that. Not to say we must always change with the wind blowing different directions, not at all. We just need to be mindful of the significance of these changes. At some point there may be an overwhelming sense that something is out of sync with our foundational values.”

He said he’s happy to have the decision made so that people can move on. Hopper was a great choice that people will celebrate, he said — but he’s also bracing for messages from some prominent alumni who have opposed the change “who are going to go berserk about this.”

Kica Matos, director of immigrant rights and racial justice for the Center for Community Change, one of four New Haven activists arrested in a Change the Name rally Friday, said: “For those of us who put our bodies on the line yesterday, today feels like a sweet vindication. We are just happy that Calhoun’s name will no longer disgrace the city and the university.”

Salovey, in an interview, said he was thrilled by the choice of Hopper, who earned her doctorate in mathematics and mathematical physics from Yale in 1934. She left her teaching role at Vassar during World War II to enlist in the U.S. Navy, using math to fight fascist enemies. Her work on the earliest computers and computer languages made it possible to write programs for multiple machines simultaneously, to use word-based languages allowing non-specialists to use computers for the first time and dramatically expanding the ways computers could be used.

She was a co-inventor of the business language COBOL.

Hopper was recalled to active service in the Navy at the age of 60, and retired as a rear admiral when she was 79. She was honored many times, including posthumously with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In his letter to the campus community, Salovey called her a visionary, and wrote, “At a time when computers were bulky machines limited to a handful of research laboratories, Hopper understood that they would one day be ubiquitous, and she dedicated her long career to ensuring they were useful, accessible, and responsive to human needs.”

Her principal legacy, he said, “is all around us. … Grace Murray Hopper College thus honors her spirit of innovation and public service while looking fearlessly to the future.”

Grace Murray Hopper, retired Navy rear admiral and legendary pioneer computer scientist, has died

When she died in 1992, her obituary in The Washington Post noted she had a very strong dislike of intellectual conventions, symbolized by a clock in her office in the Naval Data Automation Command that ran counterclockwise. She once told a reporter, “‘the only phrase I’ve ever disliked is, ‘Why, we’ve always done it that way.’
“‘I always tell young people, go ahead and do it. You can always apologize later.’”

Read the Memo on 2017 Calhoun naming decision:

Read the letter from the Presidential Advisory Group:

Svrluga reported from Washington.