As Calhoun College’s namesake — the white supremacist, secessionist and Vice President John C. Calhoun, class of 1804 — has come under intense scrutiny, discussion has spread from current students, faculty and administrators to the broader alumni community.
In particular, an online email forum for Calhoun alumni has served to catalyze discussion. The forum, known as the “Calhoun Listserv,” which was first established as a way for members of the Calhoun classes of ’76 through ’82 to stay in touch, has become a gathering place for alumni seeking to share their thoughts on the campus discussion.
“I have been following this conversation with alacrity, and I am most impressed by the thoughtfulness, civility, erudition and eloquence on all sides,” Scott McIsaac ’79, an alumnus of Calhoun, wrote in the Listserv. “It makes me wistful for the days when we were having similarly stimulating discussions nearly every night in the Calhoun dining hall.”
The Listserv is not the only online space for discussion of the issue. After University President Peter Salovey and Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway spoke extensively about Calhoun’s namesake during the freshman address, the University launched a website, entitled “An Open Conversation,” to provide a forum for opinions.
Salovey said he is aware of other forums that Calhoun alumni use to communicate, in addition to the University Web page, but noted that he does not have access to their contents.
While some of the ideas voiced have had a humorous tilt — such as renaming Calhoun for former University President Kingman Brewster, so that members of the community can be referred to as “Brewskis” — the forum has also spawned more substantive arguments and possibilities.
Calhoun alumna Miriam Davidson ’82 described the commentary that has flooded her inbox in recent days as thoughtful and perceptive, if at times somewhat overwhelming. Calhoun’s namesake is difficult to discuss, Davidson said, but also a crucial subject, as it brings into conflict the history of the college with Hounies’ sense of “what is right.”
A majority of Calhoun alumni interviewed leaned toward changing the name of the college, with 17 advocating a name change, six supporting a retention of the name Calhoun and five saying they were undecided. For instance, Chris Aranosian ’81, an alumnus of Calhoun, said he believes the honor of having a college as namesake should not be granted to someone like John C. Calhoun, and that the renaming of the college is long overdue.
“I remember discussing this issue as an undergrad in the late ’70s, but at the time this seemed too daunting a goal to even try,” he said.
Alex Funk ’96, a Calhoun alumnus, echoed a sentiment voiced by many undergraduates — stating that he supports a name change because he struggles to identify a major contribution of John C. Calhoun’s that does not express or derive directly from Calhoun’s views on white supremacy. He added that it would be dangerous for the University to keep the name Calhoun simply because there is currently no precedent for renaming buildings on campus.
“Defense of the status quo for its own sake has no force, least of all in a university,” Funk said. “We alums are a pretty robust group. We’ll manage the name change just fine.”
The debate comes after a group of Yale Law School students launched a petition in June calling for the college to be renamed. The petition, which has garnered 1,468 signatures, followed the massacre of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina and a subsequent debate over Confederate symbols throughout the south.
But of those nearly 1,500 signatures, only roughly 145 identified themselves as Calhoun alumni. Indeed, many Calhoun alumni — both in interviews with the News and on the Listserv — expressed a desire to keep the name, with most citing historical purposes as justification.
Calhoun alumnus Adam Blair ’84 said that if keeping Calhoun’s name on a Yale residential college provides an opportunity for students to learn more about the full diversity of U.S. history — the good, the bad and the ugly — then the name should stay. Similarly, in a post on the Listserv, McIsaac said that when Calhoun was chosen as a namesake for one of the residential colleges, it was not done with the intention of honoring Calhoun’s championship of slavery and secession.
However, he added, it is true that those making the decision were probably aware of Calhoun’s moral failings. They most likely hoped, as Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway voiced at a recent Calhoun Reunion, that the college’s name would remain “as an open sore, frankly, for the very purpose of having conversations about this,” McIsaac wrote. And, judging from the recent spike in the activity on the Listserv, he added, the name Calhoun is still serving that purpose exceptionally well.
“I think probably Yale will decide to rename Calhoun College, because these things are pushed to decision by undergraduates, who tend — I remember — to be very clear about the righteousness of their vision, and to be uncompromising in their judgment,” said Bill Campbell ’75, an alumnus of Calhoun. “But for me, I’d keep it.”
When asked whether Calhoun alumni seem more intent on renaming Calhoun in comparison to alumni and students in the other 11 colleges, Salovey said older Hounies appear to be as undecided as the rest of the Yale community.
“What’s interesting is that Calhoun alumni, from what I can tell, do have passion for this issue,” Salovey said. “They show a lot of passion and do care a lot about the college and its name, but, like the more general Yale community, are also on all sides of the issue.”