Religious Studies professor Stephen Davis’s announcement that he no longer wishes to be referred to as the “master” of Pierson College has initiated a debate over the use of titles at Yale, with some calling Davis’s decision commendable and others arguing that is fails to take into account the history of the term.
Some argue that Davis’s announcement, which comes amid ongoing debate over Calhoun College, whose namesake was a staunch proponent of slavery, is a step in the right direction for a campus and a country still torn by racism. But others note that the title’s use at Yale originates from the racially innocuous academic nomenclature of Cambridge and Oxford. There, the title, which is derived from the Latin “magister,” denotes the “head or presiding officer of a society, institution … or of certain colleges” — a definition given by the Oxford English Dictionary that dates back to the 14th century. The dictionary’s definition for the word “master” in this sense specifically cites Yale as one place where the word is used this way. The same word “master” is used to signify an advanced degree of study, such as a master of arts or master of science.
The title is also used at Harvard, where leaders of the residential Houses, the equivalent of Yale’s residential colleges, are called house masters. These leaders were initially just called masters, like at Yale, but the word “house” was added in front years ago to “deflect any unfortunate associations,” according to Currier House Master Richard Wrangham.
Diana Eck, house master of Lowell House, said the word has not been a topic of much contention at Harvard. One reason for the difference, she said, may be that very few of the house masters are called by that title, unlike at Yale. She and her wife, for example, go by their first names, and students at Leverett House call their house masters “chief” and “coach.”
“No one ever calls us (or has ever called us) ‘master,’” Quincy House Master Lee Gehrke wrote in an email to the News.
Still, others argue that the title’s origin is irrelevant given its undeniable connotations of slavery and racial hierarchies. Davis addressed these associations in his email when he asked Pierson students to change the manner of address they use with him.
“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 in his announcement. “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.”
Several students interviewed agreed.
Abdul-Razak Zachariah ’17 said that when he was an incoming freshman, he recognized the term to be simply a marker of authority for the head of his college. But when he arrived on campus and actually had to say the word out loud, he felt “extremely uncomfortable.”
“[Former Timothy Dwight College Master Jeffrey Brenzel] acted as a mentor and a friend, but I kept thinking I was degrading myself just to talk to him with the use of his Yale-sanctioned title,” Zachariah said.
When asked if she had ever felt uncomfortable addressing Davis by his title of master, Pierson College student Dara Huggins ’17 responded, “I think the more interesting question to ask is, who hasn’t felt uncomfortable using that title? More importantly, why? The answer you’re most likely to receive isn’t a coincidence. The latency in addressing this issue isn’t a coincidence either.”
The conversation about the title will continue into the fall, as the Council of Masters has scheduled a September meeting to discuss the title of “master.” Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway noted that among the 12 masters, there is “not unanimity on either end of the spectrum” on the use of the word.
All 12 college masters, including Davis, either declined to or did not return requests for comment.