After the University’s decision to rename Calhoun College, some members of the Yale community and beyond are questioning whether other buildings or residential college titles might follow suit, although most agree that the Calhoun case was more clear-cut than are those of other buildings on campus.
When University President Peter Salovey announced on Saturday that the residential college would be renamed for Grace Hopper GRD ’34, he also emphasized the dangers of erasing history and noted that the report by the Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming established a “strong presumption against renaming.” While faculty members echoed the exceptional nature of the Calhoun decision and doubted that other campus buildings will meet the guidelines for renaming, students have in the past drawn attention to structures named for individuals they see as at odds with the mission of the University, like Morse and Jonathan Edwards colleges.
“It would be hard to imagine a case more clear-cut than Calhoun,” said professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry Andrew Miranker, who authored a letter in favor of renaming Calhoun that garnered nearly 400 faculty signatures. “I do think that in many ways, Calhoun was used to set the top of the bar, and I don’t know what sets the bottom of the bar in this particular discussion.”
The report of the renaming committee, chaired by John Witt ’94 LAW ’99 GRD ’00, outlined four main principles for cases of potential renaming: whether the namesake’s principal legacy conflicts with the University’s mission, whether that legacy was contested during the individual’s lifetime, the reasons the University honored that person and the extent to which the building in question plays a role in forming community. An ad hoc task force report unanimously recommended the renaming of Calhoun, based on the principles of the Witt committee.
History professor John Gaddis, one of two faculty members on the three-person Calhoun task force, said he believes it is unlikely other buildings will be renamed because the reports of both committees set a “high bar” for future requests to ensure they will be “exceptional events.”
“Speaking here only for myself, I see no other Yale name that comes anywhere close to qualifying,” Gaddis said.
Still, Yale students over the years have taken issue with many residential college namesakes, despite the community’s recent major attention on Calhoun.
In 2001, three Ph.D. students, Antony Dugdale GRD ’00, J. J. Fueser GRD ’02 and J. Celso de Castro Alves GRD ’02, published a report titled “Yale, Slavery and Abolition.” They explored Yale’s historical ties to slavery and stated that the University turned payments from a plantation “likely … worked by slaves” to its first set of scholarships. Yale also honored slave traders and owners in the names of the residential colleges and the “Eight Worthies” — statues adorning Harkness Tower.
The report stressed two honorees’ legacies as pro-slavery fighters — John C. Calhoun’s, class of 1804, and Samuel Morse’s, class of 1810. The latter, the report stated, argued that slavery was ordained by God himself and suggested that the churches excommunicated anyone who was an abolitionist. The report also underscored that Morse College received its name at the height of the civil rights movement. The only three colleges completely in the clear were Branford, Saybrook and Pierson, according to the report.
Although the report’s findings were broadly questioned, it did prompt a response from both the University and the student community.
The University held a conference titled “Yale, New Haven and American Slavery” in 2002, which elicited mixed responses. Many attendees, including history professor David Blight, who gave his first speech as the new director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition at the conference, felt that it did not sufficiently discuss Yale’s involvement in slavery and did not truly serve its purpose — creating an ongoing discussion of the issues.
In light of the report’s revelations, Dwight Hall considered changing the organization’s name, but opted out for installing a plaque renouncing Dwight’s pro-slavery work instead in order to, as the plaque states, “ensure the ideological continuity of [the organization’s] work in the minds of Yale students and New Haven residents who associate Dwight Hall with the ideals of public service and social justice.”
“Dwight [Hall] took up this issue more than 15 years ago and attempted to resolve it in a principled manner before resources like the Witt Report had been offered,” Dwight Hall Co-Coordinator Anthony D’Ambrosio ’18 said.
An anonymous campaign in 2009 “renamed” eight residential colleges — Calhoun, Davenport, Jonathan Edwards, Morse, Silliman, Timothy Dwight and Trumbull — and buildings named for slavery advocates, including Vanderbilt and Woodbridge halls. Anonymous student activists put the “new names” honoring pro-abolition figures on the buildings in chalk.
A 2014 op-ed published in the News stated that “nine out of the 12 residential colleges are named for slaveowners,” pointed to Morse as a pro-slavery “rabid racist and xenophobe” and called for renaming the college.
Craig Steven Wilder, a history professor at MIT and the author of “Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities” echoed the sentiment that Calhoun was the easiest name to deal with, given that Calhoun has always been a bizarre choice for a residential college’s name, considering his slavery legacy.
Still, he said, each building name has to be considered separately even not in such clear-cut cases.
“I do think we have an obligation to historicize Stiles and Edwards’ decisions about slavery and to really talk about Stiles and Edwards’ experiences as slave holders,” he said. “Having their names on buildings doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be public about the history of their relationships to slavery … We can do both.”
The existence of the Witt Report sets clear guidelines for questions of renaming and provides a procedure students and faculty can follow in future cases, Miranker said. He added that people do not yet know where the line for renaming should be drawn — other than that Calhoun was over the line — but he does not think it will be a “slippery slope” as he had previously feared.
Miranker said the community “never [wants] to go back to a two-semester long conversation” about renaming, as was done leading up to the decision to retain Calhoun’s name last April.
“I think the good thing about the Witt report is that if a student or a group of students thinks something ought to be renamed, they ought to go do the work, look up the history and make a case,” former University Secretary Sam Chauncey ’57 said.
Morse and Ezra Stiles colleges were established in 1961.
Britton O’Daly and David Yaffe-Bellany contributed reporting.