When Yale opened the first of its residential colleges in 1933, University leadership drew the names of the colleges from the ranks of prominent alumni and New Haven leaders. At the opening of the most recent residential colleges, Ezra Stiles and Morse, Yale College had not yet begun accepting women despite their enrollment in the graduate schools. A few years later, when the women who joined the class of 1973 made history, each new female student joined a residential college named after and run by men — that is, until the appointment of Katherine Lustman as the first female residential college master in 1971.
I’m not the first to point out these disparities. And I certainly am not the first to notice that Yale — with the construction of the two new residential colleges — is now presented with a great opportunity to recognize the accomplishments of our inspiring female forebears. With the goal of our University structures reflecting the realities of today’s Yale, I propose naming one of the two newest colleges after Grace Murray Hopper, honoring both Yale’s legacy of storied leadership and its technological promise for the future.
Born in New York City in 1906, Hopper came to Yale to earn advanced degrees in mathematics, including her Ph.D., in 1934. After taking a position on the faculty at Vassar College, she joined the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1943, eventually rising to the rank of Commodore (later converted to Rear Admiral, Lower Half) over an unprecedented career that lasted more than 40 years. Her final promotion to “flag” rank came by special Congressional support, which only solidified her place as a symbol of progress for the Navy and for the federal government more generally.
As a computer scientist, she developed the first compiler for a computer programming language and coined the term “debugging” to describe the process of fixing computer glitches. “Amazing Grace,” as many came to call her, was a true pioneer. Her first Navy assignment was to the Mark I at Harvard, the first computer ever built in the United States. For her groundbreaking work, she set the bar of achievement high for the women — and men — of our STEM programs here at Yale.
Born into a family with a long-standing military tradition, Hopper distinguished herself as someone with great intellectual promise who chose to leave academia behind for a nation that needed her vision for the future of technology. In that, she is like Yale and like the many alumni who have left this campus with the fortitude to do good. While in the Navy, Hopper, too, often focused her efforts on educating the next generation.
Our University has long been at the front line, with alumni and faculty serving in nearly every major conflict in which America has fought. A walk through the Memorial Hall, just outside Commons, amidst the names of Yalies who paid the ultimate price for our freedom, is a touchstone for this collective experience. For our shared history of service. For our responsibility as a community to the outside world.
In a 1986 interview with David Letterman, just after her retirement, Hopper spoke in a matter-of-fact way about her life of service. Her steadfastness and dedication reflect a career that spanned nearly the entire length of the Cold War. At one point, when describing her reasons for joining the Navy during World War II, even though she already had tenure as a professor at Vassar, she eulogizes “a time when everyone in this country all did one thing together.” Her experience in service during the Vietnam War is undoubtedly the support for her lament.
Hopper perhaps shared the University’s troubled visions of the Vietnam era, when the Army and Navy officer training programs were forced from the Yale campus, to return 40 years later in fall 2012. Making her the namesake of a new college would make good on the words of Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, who applauded the closeness of “Navy blue and Yale blue” when he visited campus to reinstate the Naval ROTC unit in May 2011.
While I am not of the right academic background to appreciate the breadth of her accomplishments in computer programming, I have a sense that her example as someone who did so much with her Yale education, who showed the discouraged and disheartened the way forward, is one that we can all strive to follow. And Grace Hopper College has a certain ring to it, too.
Josh Clapper is a sophomore in Davenport College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .