It would be a small loss and an important, if symbolic, gain to decide as a community that there is a better word than “master” for the faculty members who head the residential colleges.

Few roles are as central to Yale College as those at the helm of these residential communities. The position dates to the 1930s, when Yale adopted a housing plan modeled on the system at Oxford and Cambridge, where some colleges are led by faculty who enjoy the title “master.” It’s this borrowed nomenclature that Stephen Davis, a religious studies professor who heads Pierson College, repudiated in shedding the title “master.”

“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,’” he wrote in August to the Pierson community.

It was a powerful message, catching many by surprise and raising questions about whom Davis had consulted and what sort of authority is involved in formalizing the change he has already begun to implement in Pierson. These are less important questions than the substantive ones raised by Davis, who deserves praise though he clearly isn’t looking for any, about how we use language redolent of tradition and history.

The residential college plan, and with it the installation of “masters,” was at once an innovation and a continuation of longstanding commitments. Yale was founded on the principle of the small college, premised on bonds that are not only academic but familial. We hold the heads of the residential colleges in such high esteem because they have assumed responsibility for the welfare of a segment of the student body — a community not unlike an extended family. In turn, they exert a form of control that has grown out of a tradition of patriarchal authority long entrenched in household relations.

It is therefore not startling that, for some, addressing the head of a college as “master” evokes relations of slavery and unequal marriage bound up in this tradition of patriarchal authority. The evocation is potent in the United States in ways it is not elsewhere. Plantation slavery doesn’t have the same determinative place in the modern history of England as it does here. In the 1772 Somerset case, a British jurist found that no man could be a slave on English soil — four years before the birth of the American nation.

When a black student is asked to address an authority figure as “master” — and especially when serving that person, as students do in their capacity as “master’s aides” — the association can be disempowering.

What is the purpose of subjecting our peers to this, if some find it painful? We all prize tradition, but we find no great value in this title. Few memories of Yale, few moments of personal growth or shared discovery, stem from calling the heads of residential colleges “master.”

The word “master” holds multiple meanings, and of course we can’t immunize ourselves against every fraught word. A “master” is a skilled practitioner. As an adjective, it can mean “main” or “principal,” as in a master key. At institutions of higher learning, we use the word to denote a type of degree, such as a Master of Science.

But a word’s meaning doesn’t exist in a vacuum. We understand the significance of language in the context of our individual experiences and our shared national history. When the word “master” is used as a term of address, it carries a particularly vexed meaning — undertones not shared by the name of a degree.

We cannot undo the word’s association with slavery. But we can make decisions about how we want to be addressed and how we want to address others. Certain terms, in specific contexts, are more ethical and inclusive, in the same way some are more appropriate and accurate.

For this reason, “master” — as a form of address — should be retired at Yale, altering, too, immediately related terms: master’s house, master’s office, master’s aide, master’s tea.

The opportunity to reconsider what we want to call one another should be viewed as an intellectual challenge, not an exercise in political correctness. We might look to other terms used at Oxford and Cambridge, among them “principal” and “president.” Perhaps we will choose “magister,” the Latin root of “master,” or simply “director.”

The unique role these 12 — soon to be 14 — people play is shaped by the way we choose to address them. More central is the substantive, multidimensional work they do as scholars, advisers and advocates for students. As they lose the title “master,” it is our hope they gain something else: an even more profound sense of the effect they have on students and their ability to make Yale an inclusive and intellectually stimulating place for us all.

  • theantiyale

    If you drop the title “master” then you will have to drop the title “Mr.” which etymologically is “weakened form of ‘ master’. ”
    “Hey you with the penis” might replace it.
    Further, women’s movements will have to drop the title “woman” which etymologically is “wif -mon ” (wife+man) and thereby perpetuates a hurtful gender oppressive tradition of male domination.
    Paul Keane
    M. Div. ’80

    • branford73

      How about “Magi”? It has a poetic ring to it, and people could catch themselves mid-word if they start to utter the banned one– like “Magi’s house”, “Magi’s tea”, “Magi’s secretary” (oops, “administrative assistant”), “Council of Magis”, etc.

      • Goldie ’08

        This is a great idea. Hooded cloaks would be a must, of course.

  • sy

    Maybe the new editorial board next month will move out of the 1960’s, and the 1860’s. “. . . addressing the head of a college as “master” evokes relations of slavery and unequal marriage bound up in this tradition of patriarchal authority.” Are not close to half of the college masters women, and Calhoun’s former master a black woman?

  • Prg234

    It is unfortunate that this fine newspaper has taken this nonsensical editorial stance, as it relates to the usage of the title Master at Yale. Master is a word with several well established meanings and it is intellectually dishonest to suggest that you (and the current Master of Pierson College) are not aware that the title of Master – as used at Yale – has absolutely no relation to an oppressive system of slavery or patriarchy. It is also highly insulting to suggest that African-American students and faculty members are unable to discern the proper meaning of this word and would therefore react with such fragility at the mere mention of Master, Master’s Tea, Master’s House, etc.. You discredit your fellow students, and your teachers by this high handed and simplistic approach. Moreover, and perhaps the saddest aspect of this decision, is that you likely feel forthright and courageous about your stance, all the while tilting at windmills while real structural issues regarding race and class go unexamined.

    “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.” ― Ernst F. Schumacher

  • Y80

    I agree with the first 3 commenters. Even if you agree that changing the name of Calhoun College is worth discussing, changing the title “Master” would be absurd. Knee-jerk anyone?

  • Bobby

    The term “master” as it is been used has nothing to do with slavery or males. It is a term relating to that persons skill level in a subject or matter. Such as he’s a bonsai master or master and apprentice. Nothing to do with men or slavery. If a student at Yale can’t mentally know the difference in connotation right away…then that’s really crazy.

  • sbkline

    Here I thought people who went to Yale were like….you know….smart. What a stupid reason to drop the word Master, just because you interpret it as a racists term. The rest of the world doesn’t.

    Ever heard of Homonyms?

    Now that there getting rid of the word “Master”, probably can’t get Master degrees at Yale anymore, Also probably get rid of bachelor degrees since the word is a male dominated word.

  • Dave

    1,000 comments on Yahoo! and so far 99% seem to agree it is a ridiculous stretch to connect “master” in the context it is used at Yale to “master” in the context it was used in slavery. YDN should go over to the Yale law school and have them define the word “master” in the context it is being used at Yale. Something tells me they won’t say the definition is “an owner of a slave”.

    I also think it is VERY insulting to imply that African-American students and faculty at Yale are so simple minded that they can’t comprehend that words have multiple meanings based on the context they are used in. Does professor Davis think a Master’s Degree is a degree someone gets to qualify as a slave owner?

    I am baffled at Professor Davis’ statement, “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’” He uses the word “context” but apparently doesn’t understand what that word means. Or is he really saying that top martial artists should not longer be called “Master”? Does he really mean that Christians should no longer call Jesus “Master”? Does he mean that all the British folks who call young boys “Master” should stop saying that immediately? What about addressing someone in the military as “Master Sergeant”? Does Professor Davis think that means a commander of slaves?

    Context! It’s all about the context!

    In case anyone reading this doesn’t know how a word can change meaning based on the context of how it is used, here is the Merriam-Webster definition of context:
    “the words that are used with a certain word or phrase and that help to explain its meaning : the situation in which something happens : the group of conditions that exist where and when something happens”

    Now take the definition of context and then think about how the word “master” is being used at Yale and tell me if the context of its usage is in any way a situation or condition of African-American slavery.

  • Phil Montgomery

    Kids – trust me – stop LOOKING for reasons to be offended. There is plenty of actual malice in the world to keep you busy for your entire life. Why not start with the rise in slavery under ISIS-controlled territories? Don’t let the actual work of bringing about change scare you. It will make you stronger.

  • branford73

    Newspeak. Well intended, but newspeak nevertheless.

    There are some words, well only one that I can think of, the meaning of which is and always has been a derogatory term, at the mildest use a reminder of the object’s subjugation and more viciously and commonly a slur. I don’t miss its banishment. But “master” only a term of racial hierarchy? Oh please.

    Davis can have his eccentricities. He is a college professor after all.

  • jwcisneros

    It is regrettable that the student newspaper of Yale has chosen to take this ill-considered stance. As Prg234 has suggested, the history of the title, “Master” has a history that precedes the U.S. slavery reference you purport to change. The captain of a sea-going vessel is “Master of Vessels,” and the license to pilot the vessel in the United States is a “USCG Master Certificate.” Perhaps we should change the name of the modern first level graduate degree? It is, after all, a Master’s Degree. I doubt that the name of an academic degree, which originated in medieval Europe refers to slavery. The terms, “master,” doctor,” and “professor,” were equivalent titles in a Medieval university. I modestly suggest that a Master of a College would refer to the (Medieval) academic rank and university title that they hold and has no bearing on an alternate usage of the word. Which brings me to a final point, unless a word is deliberately created as a pejorative, the word itself is neutral. It is the emotional freight and usage of the word that brings the context. Yale students are some of the finest in the world, please do not insult my intelligence and suggest to me that they do not have the maturity and wisdom to know the difference.

  • Anthony G.

    Richard Wagner was vile anti-Semite — Hitler played his music all the time. TS Eliot was an anti-Semite. So was Celine. So were thousands of writers and government officials and entire countries. So are you going to change the curriculum to make sure they are not studied?

    Blacks have to come to understand that there is history, good and bad, everywhere. This deranged obsession is silly. Slavery ended before the car, airplane, electricity, telephones, computers, refrigerators and TV. Get over it.

  • Edward Green

    I think we should change the name of Master’s degree too. JK, what is the limit of being offended nowadays? Pretty much everything is offensive nowadays. Are you really learning anything at your prestigious school if you’re on a constant crusade for intolerence and censorship? I’m not well ORIENTed to the future. Oops I just offended myself as a half-asian person of color. The future of our education system:

  • td2016

    Just go with “Your Holiness.”

  • Dan

    I saw this on a Yahoo post:Francis 9 hours ago

    The term “Master” in the manner used by Yale dates back to the 12th Century and the “Rise of the University”. The term is derived from the mediaeval guilds (trades) and refers to a “Master of the trade” as opposed to journeyman or apprentice. The student at the college (or university) was considered an apprentice and the professor the master, just as in the trades (the term “Master of the Degree” or Masters Degree comes from this). The term is not racist and it would be helpful if the students at Yale learned a bit of history during their time there.

  • Frank

    Waaaaaaay to much time on your hands for the discussion of Master…get real…be real…you go to Yale…be smart

  • Guy

    Another refreshing reminder of the Left’s penchant for censorship, and control of thought and speech.


  • Anna

    Pathetic pandering to the emotional sensitivities of privileged and narcissistic students, who have nothing better to do with their lives. Perhaps they should do a tour of duty in Afghanistan or work in the camps set up for refugees in Jordan to help them grow up. Shame on Yale for pandering to the left wing and politically correct media. You aren’t protecting your students, you are helping them to learn not to cope or to learn to think for themselves. Any term can be used in a pejorative manner, so the aforementioned arguments in this article are pathetic in the extreme.