At approximately 7 p.m. on Sunday, Ivy Onyeador ’11 created a Facebook event inviting her fellow Yale alumni to sign an open letter that advocated for diversity in naming Yale’s two new residential colleges. By noon on Monday, about 2,400 people were invited to the Facebook event, with nearly 300 accepting the invitation. By 8 p.m., those respective numbers had risen to 4,600 and nearly 600.
On Saturday night, organizers Onyeador and Jeania Ree Moore ’12 began sending emails to alumni to circulate an open letter Moore wrote with the assistance of several other alumni. The letter is addressed to the president’s office and the Yale Corporation, urging them to select names for the new colleges that will pay tribute to the University’s diverse history. The letter asserted that this is an unprecedented opportunity to diversify Yale’s historical narrative.
“Yale’s past, present and future contains a breadth of truly remarkable people, and we urge the committee deciding on the new college names to claim that diversity,” the letter read.
The open letter said that, as alumni of Yale College who have experienced the residential college atmosphere, signees are well positioned to contribute to the naming process. While the individuals behind the existing college names are diverse in their accomplishments, the letter said, naming the new colleges for people who are diverse in race, social status, gender and religion would honor a broader array of important figures.
The letter also specified four potential names, including Grace Hopper GRD ’34, a pioneering computer programmer, and Edward A. Bouchet 1874 GRD 1876, who is generally thought to be Yale College’s first African-American graduate and the first African American to receive a Ph.D.
At around midnight on Monday evening, thousands had already said that they are “attending” the Facebook event, and the letter had amassed 1,533 petition signees.
Evan Walker-Wells ’14 said he thinks that much of the current support for the letter is coming from younger alumni. Of the 600 people attending the event as of 8 p.m. Monday, he said, almost 100 are his Facebook friends, and both organizers are recent graduates. Going forward, he added, it will be important to also reach out to more established alumni.
The effort to extend the letter to older generations may already be underway. Myrtle-Rose Padmore ’08 said she forwarded the letter to her father — an alumnus from the class of 1967 — as soon as she saw it. The message seems to be traveling at “lightning speed,” she added.
Four alumni interviewed said they think it is important to have diversity in the new colleges’ names.
“There are a lot of us who are deeply passionate about this issue and are taking every opportunity we can to advocate and agitate for diversity in the naming of the two new residential colleges,” Nick Baskin ’14 said in an email. “If even one of the two [colleges] is named after a white man, it will be a travesty and a missed opportunity to show by example that white men aren’t the only people that matter to us as a community and an institution.”
Walker-Wells said this issue is especially significant to him because he studied historical memory while at Yale.
He added that the new colleges’ names had become an important part of the campus dialogue as early as his freshman year, when then-University President Richard Levin discussed Hopper at length in an address to the freshman class. That same year, anonymous chalk inscriptions and paper fliers appeared on campus “renaming” eight residential colleges and several other campus buildings because of their prejudiced namesakes.
Padmore said that as an African-American woman who currently works in the male-dominated field of engineering, diversity in the new colleges’ names is personally important to her.
Jonah Coe-Scharff ’14 said he thinks it is very important that Yale does not choose “token” minority figures for these names. There are plenty of highly deserving historical figures even beyond the four suggested in the letter whose selection would stand on their own while also providing diversity to the colleges’ names, he added.
Alumni opinions are split on the petition’s potential to influence the Corporation’s decision.
“I am hopeful that the University will listen, and what I’ve seen from Yale in the past is that it has listened to its students and its alumni,” Padmore said.
But Baskin said that in the past, he has gotten the sense that decision makers are disconnected from students and do not care much about their opinions. Still, he said that he is hopeful — though not optimistic — that if the petition gets enough signatures, it will send a clear message about how important this issue is to alumni and demonstrate how negative the reaction would be if the colleges were named after white men.
Coe-Scharff said it is essential for alumni to express their opinions, as he thinks that the University is more likely to listen to them than to current students.
The new colleges will each occupy approximately 220,000 square feet.