This column is part of a Friday Forum on the title “master” affixed to professors who head the residential colleges. Read the other columns here.

The master of Pierson College has declared that he wishes no longer to be called “master” by anyone who might otherwise be inclined to address him as such, out of courtesy or a respect for tradition. His decision is of such little consequence that were larger interests not at stake, it would hardly deserve a reply. But his ill-considered judgment reflects wider currents of feeling that present a real danger to our community.

To begin with, I must object to what seems the procedural irregularity of Master Stephen Davis’ pronouncement. Procedure can be the enemy of conscience.  But it is also the guarantor of many values we cherish.

“Master” is not a designation enjoyed by the master of Pierson College alone. He shares it with many others. Before any individual master takes the presumptuous step of declaring the title morally offensive, would it not be appropriate to raise the question with his or her fellows (and perhaps even to put it to a vote) before unilaterally declaring his own moral contempt for the title? Is his position so like that of the brave abolitionists who declared their conscientious opposition to slavery that he too is properly deaf to the judgments of others? His is an act of insufferable arrogance, unbecoming the dignity of one who is supposed to exemplify the spirit of open mindedness that is the lifeblood of Yale College. It reflects the enervating spirit of all-too-ready offense that has deformed our culture and produced the absurd demand for “trigger warnings” that seems, against all belief, to be gaining ground in America’s colleges and universities. 

As to the substance of the matter, “master” is a word with many meanings. It is what slaves called their owners. It is also what students have for centuries called their teachers. What the word means at Yale ought to be determined by the context most relevant to its construction. Can there be any doubt that the right one is the academic setting in which the title is conferred and used? It may be that those who designed Yale’s residential college system were guilty of an anxious wish to emulate the Oxbridge model. But can anyone seriously contend that their use of the word “master” was meant to endorse the very different system of authority that underlay the antebellum plantation?

Some will respond — this is Master Davis’ position — that it makes no difference so long as one possible meaning of the term is the offensive one that a single student places upon it. But those who make this their standard substitute for a democratic rule the requirement of unanimity (or, to put it pejoratively, the heckler’s veto). But such a requirement is hopelessly impractical (except, perhaps, around the kitchen table). In larger and more diverse communities, it produces mediocrity and quiescence. And if not constrained by some conception of reasonableness, it stifles democracy, debate and the habit of living with others who see things differently. It may masquerade as courage but is cowardice in fact because it cannot stand to live with disagreement. How small and unworthy of Yale.

An undergraduate education at Yale is premised on the assumption that young people ought to challenge the traditions they have inherited. That is more than sound; it is indispensible to their growth as self-respecting men and women. But there is another side to the question. None of us comes into the world naked. We are all the beneficiaries of the traditions we inherit. Science is a tradition. Respect for equality is a tradition. And it has been a tradition at Yale for the better part of a century to call those who are responsible for overseeing the welfare of the students living in our residential colleges, “master,” regardless of race, sex or anything but the academic and personal distinction that has presumably led the president of Yale to entrust them with this duty.

This is a tradition that should not be thrown away casually. Yes, there are rotten traditions. But is this one? I don’t see it, and Master Davis’ failure to give the question the consideration it deserves suggests that his reflections are not the ‘soulful’ ones they seem, but in reality self-serving and thoughtless instead.

But that is hardly important.  Master Davis is only one man, inflated by a sense of his own moral prestige. The troubling thing is the general devaluation of tradition his decision implies. When tradition becomes suspect for no other reason than that it carries the dead hand of the past, god help us. For then we are but the “flies of a summer” living in the self-indulgent glow of a moral certitude that has nothing to do with our connection to those who prepared the way for us and will follow us soon enough.

Is this really a human way to live? Is it the way Yale College aspires to teach its students to live? I hope not, and with all my heart hope that those most immediately touched by Master Davis’ puerile declaration declare themselves with equal vigor in favor of procedural regularity, a sensible interpretation of words and the value of preserving Yale’s honorable traditions in a world that increasingly views all traditions with suspicion and erases them whenever it can, so that we may at last dwell in righteousness as the history-less citizens of Kant’s kingdom of ends.

Tony Kronman is the Sterling Professor of Law and a former dean of Yale Law School. Contact him at anthony.kronman@yale.edu .

  • GBC

    What a tough spot for Davis, who is likely sandwiched between his personal values on the one hand and disagreement on the other. Must he suppress his discomfort with the term if the other Masters disagree with his assessment? No, I think he is within his rights to refuse the title (though perhaps the University, too, would be within its rights to revoke his position – fortunately no one cares enough about this for that to be relevant). But it made me uncomfortable to see an email with such a thinly veiled implication of an attack on any person who continues to tolerate the title, which many reasonable people contend possesses neither offensive origin nor discriminatory modern connotations. Politely rejecting the title of “Master” would have certainly been an acceptable act. Instead, Dr. Davis came close to declaring that the title “Master” was a trigger for him, and stopped just short of suggesting that no person on any campus should feel comfortable (or be allowed to?) use the term. Kronman and I agree that these trigger warnings are misguided, and I still hope that they will fall into relative disuse (saved for therapy sessions, alcoholics anonymous and Sexy Psych lectures, perhaps). It is disappointing (but short, I would say, of being evidence of “insufferable arrogance”) that Davis does not see it our way.

    • Mary Ann

      Easy to remove the “tough spot”: Just don’t be master. Poof! Davis gone. Spot gone.

  • user1234

    Thanks you professor. Nice Column.

  • yalum

    Professor Kronman’s vicious invective is a greater violation of Yale tradition than is Professor Davis’s dissent from the title of Master. That is the tradition of reasoned, civil dialogue. It is astonishing to read this ad hominem indictment by Kronman. The merits of the question are worth debating at length — but not like this. What a poor lesson for Yale students as they begin the term.

    • aaleli

      Pish.

      • Goldie ’08

        Phish.

    • Nancy Morris

      Actually, no.

      Davis did and does not speak simply as an individual in the Yale community or as someone simply raising questions or spotting issues. The pertinent “questions” here include the appropriateness of the actions and statements of a particular man holding an official university office (Davis) in the course of his performance in that office, including but not limited to his disregard of procedure, tradition and university culture. Criticism of the man (that is, “ad hominem” criticisms) to the extent of his official acts and statements are completely justifiedt. Kronman’s comments are entirely within the justified range of the question of whether Davis has abused his office. He has, as Kronman describes with complete precision.

      Davis also gets the substantive questions he raises all wrong, and Kronman points out the reasons for that, too. The two sets of questions are obviously interrelated. But civil discussion properly includes blunt personal criticism of official acts and statements, especially when they are predicated on bad reasoning, as Davis’ are.

      For example, it would be uncivil and inappropriate to employ the ad hominem argument that Davis and his actions and statements should be disapproved because Davis is short (I have no idea of his height). Kronman has done nothing of that sort. But it is entirely civil and appropriate to level the ad hominem criticism that Davis’ actions and comments exceeded his authority as master, disregarded university purpose and tradition, showed bad judgment and were just plain wrong.

    • ldffly

      “Violation of tradition”? I don’t know how close you were to faculty during your time at Yale, but I remember talk tougher than what we read in Prof. Kronman’s essay.

    • 2013wasbetter

      Just because he /names/ the man — a public figure, by any reasonable definition of the term — and derides his action doesn’t mean he’s disparaging his character. I find some of Kronman’s points wrong but the way he made them entirely acceptable.

  • Nancy Morris

    Kronman has it exactly right. Davis raising this ridiculous, distracting and totally self-important issue in this unilateral fashion evidences a serious absence of the judgment and good sense required of a College master. Yes, “an act of insufferable arrogance, unbecoming the dignity of one who is supposed to exemplify the spirit of open mindedness that is the lifeblood of Yale College” pretty much sums it up.

    I understand that Davis was named master of Pierson in 2013. When does Davis’ term as master expire? I suggest it be allowed to quietly end and not be renewed unless there is something else truly wonderful and exceptional about his service to Pierson that sufficiently offsets this current nonsense he has perpetrated. Such an offset seems very unlikely. There is no shortage of Yale faculty with the interest, charisma, intelligence, personality and good judgment it takes to be a successful Pierson master.

  • SvenTheBold

    Insufferable arrogance would be to demand that a man ought to withhold a moral judgment simply because his fellows might not agree with it. To decry someone for stating their beliefs “may masquerade as courage but is cowardice in fact because it cannot stand to live with disagreement. How small and unworthy of Yale.”

  • trollalert

    This piece is an attack. To do so to a fellow professor in the YDN is tactless.

    • ilikemoleskine

      When we “have a conversation” about Calhoun or “Master” people will sometimes argue positions. For his part, Davis is attacking the institution of “Master”. Kronman’s response seems within bounds.

  • Ndege04

    The invective of this piece is hardly likely to contribute to a reasoned exchange of views. Oxbridge colleges, allegedly the source of the Yale tradition of referring to college heads as ‘master’, use a variety of terms: Master, Mistress, Provost, Principal, Warden. It’s not the case that all colleges need to adopt the same nomenclature across the board. Colleges are their own ‘imagined communities’.

  • SALU

    how brave a stand, Master Davis! what courage, what unflinching strength of resolve! assailed from all sides, bloodied and bludgeoned, threats of academic censure and permanent unemployability notwithstanding, your fingers still refuse to be prized from the shagreen grip of that righteous [ahem, trigger warning] rapier Problematization. to this blade! O petty moralists and schoolmarms, rally!

  • ldffly

    Thank you Prof. Kronman. Argument within the ranks of Yale’s faculty should be tough.

  • theantiyale

    One person ‘s “insufferable arrogance” is another’s “admirable gadflyism” .
    Like a leading Republican blond presidential aspirant, Mr. Davis is effectively dramatizing the issue.
    BTW the etymology of “mister ” is “a weakened form of ‘master’ “.
    Paul Keane

  • Joey4

    Hm. I can certainly understand disagreeing with Davis. But calling his move “presumptuous,” “self-serving and thoughtless,” and even “puerile”? Really, puerile?

    I’m not sure who you’re trying to convince, but I didn’t find this especially persuasive. You definitely communicated that you’re very peeved by Davis and you feel moved to respond in extremely high dudgeon. But beyond that, meh. The invective tended to weaken rather than strengthen the argument.

  • Prg234

    Bravo! Perhaps all is not lost.

  • Alum

    Thank you. Some modicum of sanity still prevails.