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.