When Charles Kenney ’19 walked into Woolsey Hall Saturday morning for the Freshman Assembly, he was expecting a standard college welcome address. Instead, he — and his 1,363 classmates — were issued a challenge.
In their speeches this weekend, University President Peter Salovey and Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway called for the class of 2019’s input on the controversial name of Calhoun College, which resurfaced as a topic of debate this summer following the removal of the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s state capitol. Though most of the audience had been on campus for less than a full day, Salovey asked that the freshmen join the rest of campus in an open discussion regarding Calhoun’s contentious name.
In the following days, University officials formally invited the entire Yale community to contribute to the debate, launching a website called “An Open Conversation” following the address. The website includes a submissions box for individuals to send in their opinions on the issue, as well as a list of upcoming public discussions.
“Members of the class of 2019, here is your first hard problem,” Salovey said. “Welcome to Yale!”
During his speech, Salovey described the tragic massacre that took place in Charleston, South Carolina in June. He said the shootings ignited an impassioned national conversation about Confederate figures and symbols, a conversation that has also reached the University. Over the summer, members of the Yale community expressed dissatisfaction with the controversial namesake of Calhoun College: John C. Calhoun, a member of the class of 1804 who was a white supremacist and fierce supporter of slavery.
“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 challengers 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.”
The call to action came as a surprise to many freshmen who were expecting, as Kenney put it, “basically just an inspirational speech about how smart Yale students are.”
But most students interviewed said they appreciated being included in the important campus discussion so early in their Yale careers.
“Above all, I liked that they made it a discussion,” Franklin Eccher ’19 said.
And the discussion has already begun. According to Salovey, at least 500 responses have been submitted to the webpage form since it debuted on Saturday. Much of the input has been “incredibly thoughtful and deep,” Salovey told the News, with messages coming from all parts of the Yale community and beyond.
He added that the responses have been “on all sides of the issue,” and that it would be difficult to judge whether the majority of the responders are leaning one way or another.
“I have been impressed at the way the community has gotten engaged, and at people’s willingness to be really thoughtful about what they have to say,” Salovey said. “I was hoping for this and was confident that Yale is the kind of community where you can have a conversation like this.”
When asked if a University consensus on the issue would lead to a change in the residential college’s name, Salovey said that it is still hard to tell where the open discussion will lead, noting that the Yale Corporation has ultimate power over all campus buildings’ names.
All nine freshmen interviewed said they were pleased that the issue had been raised in such a prominent forum.
Of those nine, five freshmen said they do not believe the name of the college should be changed, while two advocated for change and two said they are still struggling to decide. Most students against the change cited the robust tradition of the college’s name and the disjunct between the man the college was named to honor and the experience of current Calhoun students.
“I agree with keeping the name … not because I agree with what he did, but because it’s a part of history now,” Katherine Melbourne ’19 said. “We’ve obviously learned from our mistakes and are a very inclusive community now. The fact that it’s named after him doesn’t change who we are now.”
These freshmen’s positions clash with those of nearly 1,500 students and alumni who have signed a petition created by a group of Yale Law School students earlier this summer calling upon the University to change the name of Calhoun College.
With ongoing campus debate on the name of Calhoun College and a distinct but related conversation centering on the title of “master,” this fall is an unusual time to adjust to life on campus. But most freshmen interviewed said that, far from being overwhelmed, they were actually glad to be coming to campus at such an important moment in the University’s history.
“When we came onto campus, I had the idea that campus would kind of slow down and we’d be welcomed, then campus life would kind of start up again,” Lily Mirfakhraie ’19 said. “That hasn’t been my experience at all. Campus and Yale are going in full swing, and we’ve been pushed into it … It’s been a really good introduction.”