In dining halls and in classes, in common rooms and on Cross Campus, with their friends, professors and college leaders, students are heeding University leaders’ call for “an open conversation” on racially charged names and titles.
As tragedy in Charleston, South Carolina darkened the country’s collective consciousness, students and faculty have engaged in conversations about Calhoun College, whose namesake, John C. Calhoun, class of 1804, was a white supremacist and vocal proponent of slavery. The title of residential college “master,” which Pierson College head Stephen Davis renounced in August for its “deeply problematic” racial and gendered implications, has come to the fore as well.
Last week, the News administered a survey to all current undergraduates, 1,661 of whom responded, confronting race, tradition and even semantics along the way. And while common sentiments pervaded the student body at large, the racial and residential communities at the heart of these debates spoke more forcefully on the issues. The survey’s results are presented here.
CALHOUN COLLEGE: HISTORICAL OR HATEFUL?
One thousand thirty-five students — two-thirds of respondents — said neither the name Calhoun, nor the title “master” makes them uncomfortable.
Still, respondents were roughly split on the issue of renaming Calhoun College, with 40 percent in favor and 45 percent against. The remaining 15 percent said that they were uninformed or did not have an opinion.
But the survey showed that in considering the college’s name, race matters. Among students who identified as black, 60 percent called for changing the name.
Asked in a free response section why they objected to the name of Calhoun College, students gave answers rooted in both history and personal experience.
“Although we cannot erase the past, we can honor the historic struggles of minorities with something as small as a name change,” one survey respondent wrote.
Students in the college itself, meanwhile, showed less support for renaming Calhoun than did the general student body: Only 34 percent of Calhoun students surveyed said they would change the name of their home college. More than half, 52 percent, said they would not, and many cited heartfelt sentiment formed within Calhoun’s walls.
“In a college name, there is so much meaning outside of the person for whom the college is named,” one Calhoun resident responded.
Others favored keeping the name out of an admiration for Calhoun’s record of accomplishment — his statesmanship, for example — or because his views merely reflected those that were widely held at the time. Many cautioned against “whitewashing” or “forgetting” history, while others identified a slippery slope argument, questioning whether the University would have to rename other colleges — the majority of which were named after men who supported slavery — if they renamed Calhoun.
“By today’s standards, [Calhoun] is a bad man. However, he is a perfect example of the Yale education — someone who goes into politics, and who most people know today in history textbooks … He was a product of his time and he believed what many others in his time believed,” Nicholas Indorf ’19 said. “John Davenport had slaves — that was just the common thing. If we change the name of Calhoun, we might as well change the name of Davenport as well.”
A few respondents even wrote that the name Calhoun “doesn’t bother anyone” — an idea that survey results decidedly rebut.
Still, 401 students reported personal unease over the name of Calhoun College. Some noted that the debate feels especially personal.
“As a black student living in Calhoun College, every day I struggle with slavery’s legacy. It was not Calhoun’s intention for me to set foot on this campus as a student,” one student wrote. “People who don’t want the name to change don’t understand the trauma of slavery … Calhoun College and Slavery College seem pretty interchangeable from a black student’s perspective.”
MASTER? HEAD? DIRECTOR?
Results were starkly different when students were asked if they were in favor of changing the title of “master.”
Far from the near-even split on Calhoun’s name, only 29 percent of respondents favored changing the title, with 58 percent in favor of keeping it and the remaining 14 percent declining to express an opinion. Most students against changing the title cited the title’s roots, which are in the British Oxbridge system’s Latin-based nomenclature.
In an open-response question, one respondent wrote against changing the title with the simple explanation, “etymology.” Another called Davis’s efforts “overly sensitive.”
“If the title ‘master of college’ was intended to be derogatory or demeaning to any people in any way, I would be all for changing the name,” Derek Ficenec ’17 said. “However, the association between master of college and slave master is purely a coincidence of nomenclature — any other proposed connection between the names is purely hypothetical. Before Master Davis’ email, very few, if any, Yalies believed in the connection between these two titles.”
Others’ opposition to the title, and to Davis’ decision in particular, challenged the desire to be inoffensive.
“Does political correctness know no bounds?” one respondent asked.
But those who objected to the title asserted that its historical connotations remain relevant, arguing that this country’s legacy of slavery poisons the title.
“I don’t think it’s acceptable to expect students, particularly those of color, to refer to anyone at the institution of Yale with the term ‘master,’” one anonymous respondent wrote. “It implies a sense of ownership.”
Another student responded simply: “I feel like a slave when I saw [master].”
Some did feel that a middle ground presented viable solutions, with one respondent suggesting changes to the “vernacular” usage of the title — students could address their college leaders by titles such as “doctor” and “professor,” while preserving the title in its administrative context. Several others said use of the title should be at the discretion of each individual master.
Pierson students called for change more consistently than did the larger student body: 63 of 146 respondents in Pierson College, 43 percent, favored changing the title, while 49 percent did not. These results may reflect a recent cultural shift among the college’s students, many of whom said they have stopped using the title out of respect for Davis’ request.
Similarly, 53 percent of the 152 black respondents said they would like to see “master” changed. Thirty-five percent did not support the calls for reform. But in open-response questions, respondents indicated that their opinions on the title are complex.
“I don’t want people to feel like I did, uncomfortable because of the potentially historical connections that can be drawn” one student, who identified as an African-American in Pierson, wrote. “Respect is of the utmost importance, but that’s respect for those in positions of authority as well as respect for the students. Should the comfort of those that may feel weird about the title not be respected?”
Part of the campus discussion about the term has been an examination of possible replacements. From a series of nine commonly suggested alternatives, “Head,” “Director,” “Magister” and “Headmaster” were viewed the most favorably among students calling for a change.
Asked for an alternative to the current title, one respondent was direct: “Literally anything that doesn’t imply slavery.”