When the Dwight Hall cabinet reconvenes next Tuesday to debate a potential change in the institution’s name, its members should remember that a rash decision could have disastrous consequences for the already understaffed, underfunded public service organization.
The name change debate is the product of a recent paper entitled “Yale, Slavery, and Abolition,” published by three graduate students this August, which explores the University’s connections with the country’s slave trade past. In addition to rehashing the well-known pro-slavery backgrounds of Yale graduates Samuel Morse and John C. Calhoun, the paper also presents new evidence linking pro-slavery stances to famous Yale men previously considered neutral on the subject of slavery, including former Yale president Timothy Dwight.
Dwight Hall’s cabinet — the group of representatives who make policy for the service organization bearing the former president’s name — will forward a recommendation on the name change issue to the alumni-based Board of Trustees, which will have final say on the matter.
To ensure that Dwight Hall returns swiftly to more important issues, the Dwight Hall cabinet should vote against renaming itself. First, the report’s findings on Timothy Dwight have been challenged by prominent slavery historians, including Robert Forbes, the associate director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of the Slavery, Resistance and Abolition. But even if the authors’ claim that Dwight owned slaves proves to be accurate scholarship, a name change would only precipitate problems.
A new title would nullify the positive reputation both locally and nationally linked to the term “Dwight Hall” — an association developed through decades of toil and service by the service organization’s dedicated members. And changing the group’s name would present a logistical and financial nightmare for a group with already insufficient resources. Tax forms would need to be reissued, pamphlets reprinted, and publicity materials revised. Finally, the actual Dwight Hall building cannot be renamed, as benefactors endowing new buildings are always assured that their name will forever remain fixed to the structure.
But beyond the practical difficulties of changing the organization’s name, there is no sound moral argument for renaming Dwight Hall. An evangelical Christian concerned first and foremost with establishing a top-notch university, Dwight never publicly professed strong opinions on slavery. Like Calhoun and Morse Colleges, Dwight Hall’s name recognizes the lifetime its namesake devoted to service, not the benefactor’s possible support of slavery. As Yale president, Dwight generously served the University and the community, just as those in the organization bearing his name do today.
The charge that Dwight supported slavery is a serious and disconcerting one, but it does not tarnish the service organization’s reputation. Rather than changing its name, Dwight Hall members should clarify Dwight’s alleged connection with slavery and focus on continuing their work — work that benefits all of Yale and New Haven.