The start of the fall semester will open a campus-wide debate over names and titles that have drawn new criticism for their racial undertones.
When Stephen Davis, a religious studies professor who heads Pierson College, asked on Aug. 14 that his students cease calling him “master,” he added a new dimension to ongoing campus conversation about racially charged names and symbols. Calhoun College, whose namesake was a fervent advocate of slavery, has long been a contentious topic on campus, but debate surrounding the college’s name was reignited this summer following the shooting in Charleston, S.C. that left nine black churchgoers dead.
As national attention turned to the Confederate flag still waving above the state’s capitol, Yale undergraduates, graduate students and alumni focused once again on the name of Calhoun College, which many said was as much a reminder of racial prejudice as the Southern flag. A group of law students authored a petition asking the University to change the name of the college.
“Like the official display of the Confederate flag in South Carolina, Calhoun College represents an indifference to centuries of pain and suffering among the black population,” the petition said. “It conveys disrespect toward black perspectives, and serves a barrier toward racial inclusiveness. Calhoun College will always preclude minority students from feeling truly at home at Yale.”
To date, nearly 1,500 people have signed on in support.
Student interest in the issue has been prolific, but opinions have differed over whether Calhoun’s name should be erased completely, modified or left alone as a reminder of the painful legacy of slavery in this country.
Esther Portyansky ’16 said she has heard many students describe their “discomfort, anger and resentment” at walking through the halls of Calhoun College. She said she recognizes that various historical figures, including other individuals who have eponymous residential colleges, supported slavery, but asserted that Calhoun was unique in his fervor for defending the institution.
“Whether John C. Calhoun’s values strike at us personally or not, having a residential college named in his honor is undeniably a sign that we do not find his values problematic,” she said. “The fact is, Yale did not find his values to be problematic in 1931, when the college was named. But today is not 1931.”
Charlotte Brannon ’19 said she does not think the solution is to erase Calhoun’s name from the college, thereby ignoring an important part of America and Yale’s histories. If anything, Brannon said, it is crucial to remember that part of history to prevent it from being repeated in any form.
Still, she added, the University administration must do something to make current and future students comfortable with what they are honoring. Though the petition supports the full-fledged removal of Calhoun’s name from Calhoun College, Brannon suggested adding a contemporary name alongside Calhoun’s — an idea that has been voiced in the past, and is even mentioned on the residential college’s website. Rather than honoring Calhoun as an individual with a questionable legacy, Brannon said, the college’s name can depict him as part of a rich history filled with adversity and change.
Jasmine Benjamin ’17, an African-American student in Calhoun, said that as a history major, she sympathizes with the argument of leaving Calhoun’s name on the college in order to “preserve historical memory.” However, she said having a residential college named after Calhoun has not influenced students to talk constructively about the past.
“I’m all for being able to discuss uncomfortable things about the past,” Benjamin said. “But I don’t think having a college named after Calhoun is doing that. If anything, it’s making people treat the past comfortably. We’ve detached Calhoun’s name from everything that he stood for, so it loses significance.”
When students want to show residential college spirit, she said, they put on “Calhoun” shirts without thinking about the legacy of racism and intolerance left behind by the person whose name they wear. The name is not encouraging people to have complex conversations about history, Benjamin said, and therefore should be changed. After all, she added, it is strange to have a college named after someone who “seems to stands for everything that Yale does not.”
Ultimately, the power to change a college’s name rests with the Yale Corporation. Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway said he “fully [expects]” the issue to arise this semester, especially as the Corporation will be selecting names for the two new residential colleges.
In the meantime, there are already plans for both formal and informal discussions of racially charged symbols on campus, especially after Davis’s announcement brought the title of “master” under broader scrutiny. Ten days after Davis’s email, the Council of Masters announced a September meeting to discuss the usage of the word, adding that students are free in the meantime to address them by whatever professional title they wish.
Similarly, Calhoun College Master Julia Adams has scheduled a Sept. 9 Master’s Tea with history professor David Blight, saying she hopes to take a historical perspective on the debate. On Sept. 21, Blight will moderate a lecture at the Gilder Lehrman Center entitled “Charleston and its Aftermath: History, Symbols, Policy” which will feature Holloway — a scholar of African American history — and several other Yale professors.
For some on campus, the convergence of the two debates is a sign of a broader shift away from racially fraught language.
Abdul-Razak Zachariah ’17 said a change in one area could lead more students to question potentially loaded traditions and titles on a campus that is filled with them.
“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.”