It’s probably a good thing that “William Sloane Coffin College” is an unlikely moniker for one of the proposed new colleges. But the News hopes that the Yale administration also decides against selling naming rights for the new colleges to a donor — Yale’s colleges are not Monopoly properties to be bid on for so many hundreds (of millions) of dollars. And though the News understands the crucial role of donations in keeping the University functioning, we would urge that President Levin and the Corporation decide against breaking with the tradition of naming our residential colleges after historically notable graduates.
Certainly, buildings on campus have been named after substantial donors without any great damage to Yale’s character. We have William L. Harkness Hall (from Harkness 1881 and his family), Sterling Memorial Library (from the estate of John W. Sterling 1864), Becton Lab (funded by a gift of Henry P. Becton ’37) and a plethora of other such buildings. But those buildings, crucially, are meant for classrooms, offices or research — not the sort of community living fostered by residential colleges. No one cheers “H is for the H in Harkness Hall,” and no one on campus is referred to by the diminutive “Bectonite.”
Aside from the oddity of having students identify themselves as partisans of a college named after someone still living — calling someone a “Morsel” would feel different somehow if Samuel F. B. Morse were still alive — is the issue of the message Yale sends in choosing college names. That one college named after John C. Calhoun, an pro-slavery advocate, causes controversy still; renaming Calhoun College is unlikely, so why miss an opportunity to name the new colleges after visionary social or political leaders? We’ll admit that Coffin College would be a terrible name, but other Yale leaders are less unfortunately named: Think of Edward Bouchet GRD 1874, the first African American to receive a Ph.D. from an American university, or Kingman Brewster, the Yale president who oversaw the University’s move to coeducation in the 1960s.
Not that the Yale entrepreneur or businessman in a position to donate the $100 million or so needed for naming rights is necessarily any less admirable person than Brewster or Bouchet — think of the anonymous donor who gave $100 million last year to eliminate tuition at the Yale School of Music — but Yale’s colleges have historically been a way of reflecting an individual’s contribution to society (Calhoun being a notable exception), not a way for an individual to celebrate him or herself. Yale’s colleges are not vanity projects: More so than those of any other buildings on campus, college names are integral to students’ on-campus identity. Thus, to the extent possible, Yale should set its ideals high and urge students to identify themselves with positive actors for change.
In light of this, the News is heartened that, according to one account of Monday’s meeting between Levin and the Yale Tomorrow campaign committee, donors seem to agree that selling naming rights is inappropriate in this context. Donations should help further Yale’s goals and ideals, not force those standards to bend in the name of vanity.