Yale officials deserve praise for their commitment not to name the two proposed residential colleges for rich donors. Now, the question is whom the colleges should honor.
As Yale officials establish criteria by which to choose the names, they should consider the serious role that such names will play in a Yale student’s experience. As we wonder how to spend our futures, college names will reflect the kind of life purpose, accomplishments and leadership that our university values and demands of us.
From now through the day when names are announced, this debate will boil fiercely, as well it should, in a collegiate community as impassioned and tightly bonded as Yale’s. Among others, President William H. Taft 1878, Noah Webster 1778 and Thornton Wilder ’20, runners-up from the selection process that settled on Morse and Stiles, will return to contention. I, for one, have scoured Yale’s history for a slate of candidates, which I hereby submit humbly to the Yale family:
Coffin College: Rev. William Sloane Coffin ’49 DIV ’56, Yale’s chaplain from 1958-1976, packed Battell Chapel with the kind of energized crowds now reserved for Ludacris and Günther. Seeking to make spirituality an honest, gritty guide to life, Coffin proclaimed, “Even if you win a rat race, you’re still a rat!” among other memorable statements. He illegally collected Vietnam War draft cards from students desperate to rid of them. Coffin inspired countless Yalies — one of whom is my mother, class of 1978. Fleeing the self-indulgence of ’70s Los Angeles, she came to Yale “to find what is true.” She served Coffin as a deacon. Ultimately, my mother converted to Judaism, and she feels to this day that the differences between religions pale in comparison to their shared ground: the rare, fiery love of “what is true” — a love that Coffin encapsulated.
Bouchet College: Edward A. Bouchet 1874 GRD 1876 was the first African-American Ph.D. After receiving his doctorate in physics, Bouchet taught science at the Institute for Colored Youth (now Cheyney University). His legacy demonstrates that education can give you the tools to work to dissolve societal vitriol and oppression. But more significantly, Bouchet’s life stands for the fact that an education itself is part of this work — through the act of cultivating your mind when society would stymie you, and through the power of discussion and thought to unite people whom prejudice would divide.
Hale College: The story of Nathan Hale’s espionage on the Redcoats — and his reputed dying words upon execution, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country” — embodies the idea of loyalty to a worthy cause that may not instantly grant prestige in return. Our generation works hard, but too often, we like our causes to say something impressive about us. What would Hale say today? Maybe, “I only regret that I have but one 70-hour work week to give to Goldman Sachs.” Today, Hale’s loving his cause more than himself stands out as a quaint artifact from another time — and a radical call to change ours.
Daggett College: Naphtali Daggett 1748 is the George Harrison of Yale presidents: underrated but essential. From 1766-1777, Daggett was President pro tempore — because nobody consented to be Yale’s president, given Yale’s financial woes. (Daggett’s predecessor had alienated students, alumni, and even Connecticut’s General Assembly, which halted funds to Yale.) Daggett convinced the Assembly to restore Yale’s funding and began to modernize the school in a variety of ways. It was not only this spirit of openness that characterized Dagget’s life, but also a subtler, more brilliant principle — one that we need in our achievement-haunted culture, in which we fear that unless we secure lifelong success a few years after graduation, we are also-rans. That principle? If a job is morally meaningful, you can accept it even if you cannot yet tell whether it will gild your resume.
Brewster College: Only of Kingman Brewster ’41, Yale’s president from 1963-1977, could one say, “On his watch, U.S. tanks surrounded New Haven” — during 1969’s protests against the city’s Black Panther trial — “but that was hardly his tenure’s biggest controversy.” Even more significant were Brewster’s admissions changes: accepting women; lifting quotas on Jews and students of color; and “bringing in actors, artists, and musicians,” not just “valedictorians,” “athletes” and alumni “progeny” (as Dan Oren writes in his book, “Joining the Club”). These principles cost Brewster millions of donation dollars. Yet he stuck to his conscience, and we are the beneficiaries. By distinguishing Yale’s intellectualism from its country-club culture, and by buttressing the former while dismantling the latter, Brewster waded into an era of social protests and asserted that universities need not be part of the problem. They can, and must, be part of the solution.
Porter College: Songwriter and Yale Glee Club member Cole Porter ’13, famous for wittily-rhymed standards like “I Get a Kick Out of You” (and for Yale songs such as “Bulldog”), epitomized the idea that a sophisticated intellect need not be the opposite of a sense of humor. It can power a sense of humor. Most of all, Porter’s life demonstrated that one way to use an education well is to bring art — and, through it, joy — to as many people as possible.
Noah Lawrence is a junior in Saybrook College. His column runs on alternate Mondays.