On their first morning on campus, in the early Saturday sunlight, with the sounds of the famed Newberry Memorial Organ reverberating around Woolsey Hall, the 1,364 members of the Class of 2019 were issued a challenge.

Addressing a topic of much controversy, University President Peter Salovey began this year’s freshman address with a description of the tragic massacre that took place in Charleston, South Carolina in June. The shootings launched an impassioned national conversation about Confederate symbols and figures, Salovey said, a conversation that extends to the Yale community. The conversation, he noted, has forced students, administrators, staff and alumni to confront similar questions of history, namings and narratives.

Though the majority of his audience had been on campus for less than a full day, Salovey called on them today to begin an open discussion regarding the contentious name of Calhoun College.

“Members of the class of 2019, here is your first hard problem. Welcome to Yale!” Salovey said, to generous laughter and applause from the audience.

The freshman address, given each year to the incoming class by the dean of Yale College and the University president, has historically served as a forum for University officials to take a stance on issues at Yale and in higher education. Salovey’s first freshman address as president, delivered in August of 2013, was titled “Yale and the American Dream,” and focused on access to higher education and socioeconomic mobility on campus. Last year, his speech to the freshmen centered around freedom of expression, and the idea that free speech “must be protected even when social norms are compromised by the speaker.”

This year, Salovey used the assembly to address the controversial namesake of Calhoun College, slavery advocate and white supremacist John C. Calhoun, class of 1804. Earlier this summer, a group of Yale Law School students launched a petition asking the University to rename the college. So far nearly 1,500 undergraduates, graduate students and alumni have signed on in support of a name change. Though issues regarding Calhoun’s name have “occasionally surfaced,” Salovey described in his speech, the problem “returned to confront [the University] again,” following the events in South Carolina.

“Alumni and faculty have written to me and to Dean Holloway from varying perspectives, some at length and with considerable force,” Salovey said. “And inevitably we found ourselves wondering, and not for the first time, how best to address the undeniable challenges associated with the fact that Calhoun’s name graces a residential community in Yale College, an institution where, above all, we prize both the spirit and reality of full inclusion.”

Among the academic robe-clad administrators seated in the stage’s front row was Pierson College head Stephen Davis, who earlier this month asked that students cease calling him “master” due to the word’s racial and gendered connotations. Salovey did not specifically refer to this question in his remarks, but Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway addressed it briefly as a related “new and ongoing debate.”

Reversing the traditional order of ceremony at the event, Holloway spoke after Salovey. Holloway, a former master of Calhoun College and a scholar of African American history, examined Yale’s history through three portraits of Elihu Yale, two of which feature collared slaves.

Just eight years ago, the University removed from the Corporation Room in Woodbridge Hall a painting of Yale standing with a slave, replacing it with one of Yale standing alone.

Holloway asked whether this quiet swap — a similar modification of history, albeit on a much smaller scale than would be changing the name of Calhoun College — had been the right way to address the racially charged issue.

“Was this the right thing to do? Was this a missed opportunity to ask larger questions about race, representations, economic systems, and, specifically, empire?” he challenged, answering his own questions only with a “perhaps.” “Is it possible to simultaneously hold conflicting feelings about a thing and its history? Can we love Yale College and quarrel with the man who gave this place its name?”

And the questions reach far beyond Calhoun, Holloway noted, asking, “If we are prepared to change the name of one college, say Calhoun, because of John Calhoun’s anti-abolitionism, what are we to do with those named for individuals who also owned slaves, were deeply racist, or whose personal views on any number of issues run counter to our current sensibilities?”

However, the dean noted one important limitation, closing his discussion of the paintings of Yale by clarifying that he does not advocate changing the name of the University. That much, he said, is “off the table.”

Beyond this, both administrators left their questions largely unanswered, making clear their intention is to stimulate discussion and seek input from the student body.  

To facilitate that discussion, this afternoon, the University launched a website called “An open conversation,” giving students an outlet to share their own views. In addition to hosting the text of Salovey and Holloway’s addresses online, the website features the images of Elihu Yale Holloway discussed in his speech.

“This is an opportunity for us not only to examine our views, but to do so in a way that leads to thoughtful discourse and appropriate actions,” the homepage of the website reads. “As an institution of higher learning, we also hope to educate not just the public — but ourselves. We look forward to embarking on this conversation with you.”

According to the website, the University will host several events in the coming months to continue the conversation officials called for this morning. The events will formally commence with a Calhoun College Master’s Tea with History professor David Blight on Sept. 9. Additionally, Holloway himself will participate in a panel entitled “Charleston and its Aftermath: History, Symbols, Policy” later in September, and there is a conversation on University naming practices planned for Family Weekend as well.

While the administrators called for an open discussion, both carefully cautioned against turning a blind eye to history and running the risk of “self-satisfaction,” as Holloway put it. Moreover, Salovey noted, Yale holds responsibility for tackling issues of political and historical significance.
“If this kind of conversation cannot or does not happen on the campuses of the nation’s colleges and universities, then we should be concerned whether it can happen anywhere,” Salovey said.

  • Area51

    Salovey has the spine of a jellyfish. Once this thing picks up the slightest bit of momentum, Calhoun is toast.

    • ldffly

      I agree and would add that the comment likely also applies to the trustees. The fix is in. After the deed is done, no student on that campus will likely have any better understanding of John C. Calhoun than they have right now.

  • Cal Hat

    At this rate, then, it will be another 211 years before the future President of Yale face up to the rapes on campus, perpetrated against unsuspecting female students. This thing about Calhoun is supposed to show that we are good, huh? Instead, it is showing that we are crass, insensitive, and stupid. Get that, Sal?

  • TMDC

    Thanks Yale, for joining the mob in posing facile solutions to difficult issues, thereby seeming to have addressed a problem while allowing more serious problems facing our nation to be pushed to the sidelines.

  • Mary Ann

    Salovey and Holloway are exactly correct that it is essential that we increase our understanding of history as it applies to race and learn from the past without attempting to hijack it. In particular, it is a self-evident fact that Calhoun College will retain its name only if the Yale community continues to believe that a man designated by John F. Kennedy as one of the greatest US Senators in history is worthy of that honor. That belief will rise or fall on the Yale community’s knowledge and understanding of history and its application to current circumstances. There is no avoiding the discussion, and no good reason for wanting to avoid the discussion. It is instead a main purpose of Yale to improve the quality of such discussions. That the quality needs improvement is beyond peradventure.

    That it is possible and often important to cherish the name and historical significance of a person while detesting many of that same person’s central actions, opinions and conclusions can be seen by considering Yale’s role in religious history. Yale was founded and originally supported by brilliant religious bigots (including Cotton Mather, fresh off his prosecution of the Salem witch trials) who burned with incandescent loathing for alternative religious traditions, especially Catholicism, and placed Yale in the service of an anti-Catholic state church. Yet the founding of Yale was itself an act of dissatisfaction with official religious developments in Massachusetts, and that founding greatly advanced freedom of conscience. Yale’s subsequent role in the development of religious and individual freedom of conscience was huge, and was sometimes advanced by the likes of Jonathan Edwards, a superficially conservative Calvinist who was perhaps the most surprised of anyone by the liberating effects of his preaching and ideas. Less than a century after the founding of the Collegiate School the First Amendment was in the Constitution and Catholics fleeing religious persecution in Europe were finding sanctuary under its protection. Every person of every faith throughout the world should cherish and respect those early North American colonial religious bigots.

    In fact, Yale might fittingly name one of its residential colleges Mather College, after the brilliant and bigoted Cotton Mather (Mather House in Cambridge of course honors his father, Increase). The endless resulting outrage and controversy over so honoring the Salem witch trial prosecutor would serve as a constant reminder of the many perils and erratic courses of history. And Francis should consider establishing during his forthcoming visit a shrine in Saint Patrick’s to honor the original Plymouth Pilgrims, who would no doubt have strangled his predecessor in his sleep if they had only got the chance.

  • hounten

    I think that this is courageous, actually. Holloway and Salovey are framing the argument in a well-considered manner, and they’re asking for a quality community discussion about it, rather than simply knee-jerking and editing history in order to please current sensibilities. The easiest route for them is to simply push a name-change through in short order, but doing so might cost the community a chance to approach this issue in an intellectually rigorous manner. Spine of a jellyfish? Give me a break.

    That Calhoun’s position on slavery is abhorrent is beyond question here. The real concern is, if we re-name a college based on modern common political thinking, have we really fixed anything? In addition, where do we stop? Hate to say it, but much of American history (not just in the South) is steeped in pretty horrific human rights abuses. Do we tear down the Jefferson Memorial? Do we re-name all streets named after Andrew Jackson? Not going for a slippery-slope here…these are real questions, and I’m not sure where I fall on them yet, either.

  • Prg234

    10 days ago
    In relation to this latest linquistic and somewhat odd apologist folly, as well as the Calhoun brouhaha, I ask Yale faculty and students to consider thinking through some of their more extreme positions aimed at an apparent utopian ideal. Carried out to the most logical and eventual conclusion we would be required to rename hundreds of thousands of public buildings, streets, and other place names as they commonly lead back to individuals that were quite imperfect. We are in a current cultural climate that mainly focuses on racist or sexists themes, but certainly almost every historical figure can be accused of a plethora of sins and most (if not all) individuals in this great country of ours can be considered complicit with the mass extermination, enslavement, and mistreatment of the continent’s native peoples. While I am sure that the proponents of this “correctness” methodology are mostly well meaning, I propose that they are greatly misguided by focusing their energies on inert symbolism rather than active embracement of all fellow humans in true and lasting fellowship.

  • CT native

    In their letter to alumni Salovey and Holloway said “Any response should engage the entire community in a thoughtful, campus-wide conversation about the university’s history, the reasons why we remember or honor individuals, and whether historical narratives should be altered when they are disturbing”. Should the response be based on what’s least disturbing, or on what’s the right thing to do?

  • Harri

    Good, still. I rather Salovey resolve the Suzanne Jovin murder case. It means shining a light on some unfortunate behavior at the university. Despite your Yale-Princeton alum’s best efforts, the Jovin case isn’t going away

    • Carol

      Decent point, he can do both. Yes, Alan Plattus is extremely evil, his evil knows no bounds, from the black community to his own “friends” His latest P. Deamer joke….evil, evil, evil, evil. Yale can handle more than one task

  • theantiyale

    Good Lord.
    The Academy is not a disinfectant.
    Return that portrait of Elihu Yale with slave (echoes of Joshua Reynolds’ “Man with Dog” ) and put it on display where every visitor to Yale (University) can see it.
    History is history. It is not public relations.
    This artistic bowdlerism ranks with Yale Press’s publishing a scholarly book on the controversial cartoons of the prophet Muhammed and sanitizing it by refusing to display the cartoons. For shame.
    Paul Keane
    M. Div. ’80

  • Joseph Lucas

    Harvard has been much better at preserving its legacy of controversial donors. I remember sitting in front of a plaque at HLS recognizing a contribution from the Bin Laden family for the study of Islamic culture. Of course, the Bin Ladens never owned slaves…

    • djr4nger

      “Of course, the Bin Ladens never owned slaves..” – And how do you know that? Slavery, indentured servitude and human trafficking are alive and well in the middle east and Saudi Arabia in particular. In fact, many middle easterners still consider slavery of non-believers a legitimate form of jihad in Islam.

  • djr4nger

    Calhoun’s name was chosen in 1933 because “Calhoun influenced the
    political history of the United States more deeply than any other
    graduate during the first two centuries of the college’s history” – so written by a Yale historian at the turn of the 20th century.