University President Peter Salovey announced last Friday that the Yale Corporation will make a final decision on the decadeslong Calhoun College naming dispute by early 2017. But missing from that announcement — and from a set of renaming principles also released last week — was an answer to another key question: how Yale will choose a new namesake if the trustees elect to replace John C. Calhoun, class of 1804.
In the coming months, a new task force — consisting of two professors and one alumnus — will make a recommendation to the Corporation on the renaming of Calhoun, based on guidelines laid out by the Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming. But even if the Calhoun task force recommends that the Corporation rename the college, it will have no authority over the replacement namesake, Salovey told the News.
“I think at the moment it would be premature to speculate on how a new name would be selected, until we know we’ll need one,” Salovey said. “I do think we have to remember that there’s been an awful lot of input, and from multiple constituencies — faculty, staff, students and alumni and on-campus people who care.”
Corporation senior fellow Donna Dubinsky ’77 also declined to speculate on how the trustees might decide on a potential replacement for Calhoun. But Dubinsky said she does not think the University needs a general set of guidelines, similar to those established for determining whether buildings should be renamed, for the process of selecting replacement namesakes.
“We got a bunch of feedback from the community when we were looking at the new two new colleges, so we have a history on it,” Dubinsky said. “I don’t know that we need a protocol.”
Last January, the trustees held on-campus listening sessions in which students could recommend possible namesakes for Calhoun and the two new colleges on Prospect Street. Suggestions ranged from Grace Hopper GRD ’34, a pioneering computer scientist, to Roosevelt Thompson ’84, a high-achieving African-American student in Calhoun who died in a car accident shortly before his graduation.
Still, the lack of clarity regarding the trustees’ plans for the possible renaming of Calhoun has raised concerns among students, many of whom remain distrustful of the Corporation in the wake of last year’s decision to name one of the two new colleges after Benjamin Franklin. In September, the News confirmed that the Corporation committed to the name Franklin in 2013, three years before the listening sessions, at the request of the donor who helped fund the construction of the new colleges, Charles Johnson ’54.
“A longer conversation should be had about creating the new [Calhoun] name. I don’t think it would be the best method to direct it straight to the Corporation, considering the last couple situations,” said Abdul-Razak Zachariah ’17, the sole undergraduate on the president’s diversity and inclusion task force.
Since the naming decisions last April, the Corporation has not publicly requested suggestions for potential Calhoun replacements. But in the coming weeks, the trustees may begin receiving them anyway. On Tuesday, Calhoun Head Julia Adams announced plans for the Calhoun College Council to relay student feedback about the potential renaming to University officials.
Typically, the president and Corporation choose the names of new buildings, often at the direction of donors. But the potential renaming of Calhoun would present a unique situation — the first time in the history of the University that the name of a residential college has changed.
Alex Zhang ’18, who led a campaign last year to make Thompson the new Calhoun College namesake, said that the trustees should solicit more input from the community before selecting a potential replacement. He added that the Corporation should be “very transparent about the process and what the limitations are.”
Beyond the Calhoun debate, the announcement last Friday of a general University protocol on renaming — a system of petitions and administrative reviews leading up to a possible Corporation decision — has invited questions about how the trustees choose building names in the first place.
Philosophy professor Shelly Kagan said that Yale understandably accepts input from alumni who make significant donations, but he also noted that this custom contributed to widespread naming concerns on campus last spring, and said the practice should be addressed moving forward. He added that Yale should establish clearer guidelines for how building names are selected to begin with. The University should consider factors like demographics, Kagan said, as relatively few campus buildings are named after women or racial minorities.
He said that the renaming committee report noted that Yale has previously replaced names on an “ad hoc basis.” Moving forward, the University could consider creating a new committee dedicated specifically to choosing new names, Kagan added.
“There are, I gather, some guidelines about naming,” Kagan said. “At least [there is] the tradition — I don’t know whether it’s actual policy or custom — of not naming buildings after someone who lived within the last century, or at least naming buildings after people who have some minimal connection to Yale, although I admit in the case of Franklin College that’s going to be a rather tenuous connection. There are some guidelines there, but now that question gets raised.”
Andrew Miranker — a professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry who authored an open letter last May calling on Salovey to rename Calhoun — said he does not necessarily object to giving donors a voice in the naming of buildings they fund. But he called the Franklin decision “egregious” and said he was surprised to learn there is no financial impediment to renaming Calhoun.
“When I learned there was no money involved in keeping Calhoun’s name I was stunned,” Miranker said. “I thought there must be a legacy or we were up against some legal or financial barrier, and none of those were there — it was totally a University decision.”
Miranker said he has not thought much about possible protocol for deciding a replacement name, but added he is currently compiling background research on a historical figure who he thinks could replace Calhoun.
Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway, a member of the renaming committee, said the University should use the renaming principles as a guide for the selection of new names. The principles call for administrators to consider the “principal legacies” of controversial namesakes, as well as their historical context.
“Our principles are not there to tell [the Yale Corporation] what to do,” Holloway said. “But we hope that when they’re selecting names that they’d be thinking about these principles, and at the core, when it comes to new names, that the name of the person they’re using, that person’s principal legacy be aligned with the University’s values.”