Updated: Aug. 15, 9:39 a.m.
Stephen Davis, a religious studies professor who has led Pierson College since July 2013, has asked that students cease calling him “master.”
In a Friday email to the Pierson community, Davis cited “deeply problematic” racial and gender hierarchies associated with the title, which has been affixed to leaders of the residential colleges from their inception in the 1930s. Since then, the colleges have grown in number, set to expand from 12 to 14 in 2017, and have become a hallmark of undergraduate life at Yale.
They have also sparked considerable debate. Davis’s request comes in the context of renewed campus dialogue about racially charged names and symbols — notably Calhoun College, which is named for the segregationist John C. Calhoun, class of 1804.
Davis asked members of the Pierson community to address him as “doctor” or “professor,” and to refer to his administrative role as “head of college.”
“I think there should be no context in our society or in our university in which an African-American student, professor or staff member — or any person, for that matter — should be asked to call anyone ‘master,’” Davis wrote. “And there should be no context where male-gendered titles should be normalized as markers of authority.”
In his email, Davis said there have been instances when the title has made students, faculty and guests uncomfortable. Calling the leaders of residential colleges “masters,” he said, “undercuts our common effort to cultivate a spirit of welcome and hospitality.”
The change in terminology will extend beyond Davis and his wife, Jenny Davis, who has previously been referred to as an “associate master.” Davis said he and his staff will begin calling his student employees “Pierson Aides” instead of “Master’s Aides,” and “Master’s Teas” will now be known as “Pierson Teas.”
Davis acknowledged that he could not change the use of the word “master” outside of his own college, but added that he would advocate for others to embrace the change. He asked for students’ help in engaging in this conversation.
Many students appear eager to do so. After the email was posted on the popular Facebook group “Overheard at Yale” Friday afternoon, dozens of commenters voiced their approval of Davis’s decision. Among them was Trumbull College Master Margaret Clark, who wrote that she is “in complete agreement with Steve Davis on this.”
Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway, who has previously served as master of Calhoun College, said the title always struck him as “a strange piece of karma” given his race, his academic focus on African-American history and his leadership in Calhoun, but he “never worried about the title beyond that.” He surmised, however, that many others will certainly share Davis’s view of the title.
“[Davis’s] reading of the title is more literal and focused on our national narrative and naming practices than mine — I see it as nothing more than a legacy of the British Oxbridge system that Yale was blatantly trying to emulate when it created the residential college system in the early 1930s,” Holloway said in an email shortly after the announcement. “But the difference of opinion is okay with me. In fact, I think it will be healthy to have a conversation on the issue.”
Most other colleges’ masters were not immediately available for comment.
Davis’s announcement comes just weeks after students circulated a petition calling for a change of the name of Calhoun College. The document garnered nearly 1,500 signatures.
For some on campus, Davis’s decision is an extension of that debate. Abdul-Razak Zachariah ’17 said the conversation about Calhoun may have made students question other traditions and titles on campus.
“I honestly don’t know how much a sweeping change of using the term ‘master’ could lead into a change of the name ‘Calhoun,’” Zachariah said. “But I know that if students see this initial change through until its total success, then the possibility of eliminating Calhoun’s name will increase exponentially.”