Alumni discuss naming

Will Bouchet College be a contender for the Tyng Cup? Will “Swensenites” scream the loudest from their section in the bleachers at The Game? Will students flock from all over campus to eat at the Gertrude Stein Dining Hall?

These questions may very well have answers in 20 years’ time.

Whether the proposed two new residential colleges are named after past Yale luminaries or the donors who underwrite their construction is a question up to the Yale Corporation. But that fact has not stopped alumni from combing through Yale’s history to brainstorm potential college namesakes.

The Yale Alumni Magazine, which operates independently from the University, started the conversation in its January/February issue this year by proposing six potential college namesakes — including one African-American and one woman. Since then it has received several dozen submissions, Executive Editor Mark Branch ’86 said.

The discussion over what to name new colleges interests the magazine’s readership because Yale alumni have a particularly strong, sentimental affinity for the residential college system, Branch said.

“It’s not like naming just any building,” he said. “It’s screamed at football games. It’s part of every undergraduate’s first conversation.”

With the exceptions of Branford and Saybrook, which are named after towns in Connecticut, the existing colleges are named after deceased white males. Although the recent proposals represent a more diverse group, most of the alumni stayed away from the living.

“There is kind of a tacit understanding that the person should be dead,” Branch said.

Swensen College?

But if John Wesley ’96 had his way, one of the new colleges would be named after David Swensen GRD ’80, who is very much alive and runs Yale’s Investments Office. Swensen has selflessly contributed more money to Yale than any other person by achieving astronomical returns on the University’s endowment, Wesley said.

“He’s not someone who gave money, but his gift with endowments has eclipsed the dollar value of anything anyone has given,” Wesley said. “He puts the ‘lux’ back into ‘lux et veritas.’”

Yale President Richard Levin chuckled when asked about the possibility of a Swensen College, but declined to comment on the naming of new residential colleges.

Several alumni said scientists ought to be better represented, especially in light of Yale’s increasing commitment to the sciences.

Elliott Marcus ’54, a neuroscientist, nominated Harvey Cushing 1891 and Josiah Gibbs 1858. Cushing is considered the “father of neurosurgery” and Gibbs is the most significant scientist ever to have graduated from Yale, Marcus said. Silliman College, named after chemist and Yale’s first science professor Benjamin Silliman, is not sufficient to represent Yale’s work in the sciences, Marcus said.

“[Silliman’s] contributions to science were infinitesimal when compared with those of Josiah Gibbs,” Marcus said.

Other nominations included Noah Webster, Nathan Hale and Cole Porter, as well as other prominent Yale musicians, politicians and writers. One alumnus even suggested Gertrude Stein College; although not otherwise affiliated with Yale, she left her papers to the University when she died in 1946.

In its original call for suggestions, the alumni magazine suggested Brewster and Coffin College, after former Yale president Kingman Brewster ’41 and former chaplain William Sloane Coffin ’49, who died last year. Both were liberal figures whose legacies at Yale are charged and highly controversial, Branch said. He pointed out that while unorthodox, the two-part name has a precedent at the University of Cambridge, whose college system Yale imitated.

Naming a college after the two could prove entertaining for the magazine’s editors, he said.

“Every time we mention either Brewster or Coffin, we get a lot of letters,” Branch said.

Women and minorities

The fact that all of the current college namesakes were white men was not lost on the contributors to the list. Their suggestions include Edward Bouchet 1874, Yale’s first African-American graduate and the first African-American recipient of a doctorate in the United States, as well as Yale’s first Chinese graduate, Yung Wing 1854.

Jeff Orleans ’67 LAW ’71, the executive director of the Ivy League athletic association, suggested that a college be named after Roosevelt Thompson ’84, an African-American from Arkansas who died in a car accident during his senior year at Yale. Thompson, who played football at Yale and had been selected to be a Rhodes Scholar, made lasting impressions on many of those with whom he came in contact, including Bill Clinton LAW ’73.

Orleans said he thinks the names of any new colleges should reflect the increasing diversity of Yale.

“I was looking for someone who would symbolize the fact that Yale is an old institution with a long future,” he said.

Of the 10 current colleges named after men, eight of those men were slave owners and one of the two that did not own slaves — Samuel Morse — was an outspoken proponent of slavery.

The three women other than Gertrude Stein to receive nominations were among Yale’s earliest female graduates at their individual professional schools. Since the Yale Law School admitted only men, Alice Rufie Jordan Blake LAW 1886 applied to the Law School using only her initials, leading the admissions committee to think she was a man. She remained the only woman to graduate from the school until 1920. Jane Matilda Bolin LAW ’31 was the first black female judge in the United States. Josephine Miles Lewis 1891 was the first woman to receive a fine arts degree from the University.

After a donor?

None of the current 12 colleges is named after the person who donated the majority of the funds to construct it. Edward Harkness 1897 donated the money for the construction of the first 10 colleges during the 1930s and ’40s, and Paul Mellon ’29 underwrote the construction of Morse and Ezra Stiles colleges later in the century.

Although none of Yale’s colleges or academic units is named after a donor, many students of Yale’s history point out that the University itself was named after a then-living donor. Elihu Yale’s donation of books and goods to the Collegiate School in 1718 would eventually prompt the administrators of that small institution to rename it Yale College in his honor.

The University is unique, though, in that it has not named its undergraduate residences after donors.

Until 1994, Harvard’s undergraduate houses had been named after influential figures in that university’s history and not living donors. That changed when the administration decided to transform what had formerly been North House into Pforzheimer House in honor of a family of significant Harvard benefactors.

Princeton’s five existing residential colleges are all named after donors. A sixth college, currently under construction, is named after Princeton alumna Meg Whitman, who donated $30 million to build it.

Levin has suggested that if the Corporation decides to allow a donor naming rights to a college, that donor might have to contribute in excess of $100 million. The construction of the new residential colleges will likely cost $200 to $250 million each, according to Levin.

But several alumni said they think Yale should not give donors the naming rights to residential colleges.

Emeritus history professor and former Pierson College master Gaddis Smith ’54 said his opposition to naming the colleges after donors springs from his close connection to the residential college system and its history.

“I agree with those who say that to name a new college for a donor would be a very serious mistake,” he said. “Although, obviously, the majority of Yale buildings except for the colleges are named for donors, I guess I’m just being sentimental.”

Emerson Stone ’48, who wrote to the alumni magazine last month pointing out that there is plenty of precedent for naming things after donors at the University — including the name Yale itself — said he nonetheless feels that the residential colleges are different from other buildings on campus.

“The precedent should be considered, but I think the colleges ought to have names out of history,” he said.

Whatever decision the Corporation makes, the colleges will remain an important part of the University’s image both to its alumni and those outside of the Yale community, Yale Alumni Magazine Editor Kathrin Lassila ’81 said.

“The colleges really stand for what Yale thinks is important and what Yale wants to put forward to the world as some of its greatest accomplishments,” she said.

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