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.