When Stephen Davis, professor of religious studies and head of Pierson College, asked his residential college community in mid-August to stop calling him “master,” his announcement surprised many Piersonites and members of other colleges. It may also have come as a shock to his colleagues on the Council of Masters, who had been planning all summer to have an internal discussion about the title once classes resumed in the fall.
The result was a widespread campus discussion that has turned Davis’s personal announcement into a debate that has been rapidly gaining national attention — an outcome that Davis may not have anticipated when he sent his email. Ten days after Davis’s announcement, the Council of Masters announced it would hold a meeting in September to discuss the form of address. Individual masters have since begun soliciting student feedback through in-person meetings as well as on an online submissions form, which will close on Friday.
“There was miscommunication amongst the masters and Professor Davis, certainly, but the conversation was going to be happening anyway,” Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway said.
Davis may be uniquely situated to guide a conversation about the title among his fellow college leaders, as he was named chair of the Council of Masters just this spring. The leader of the council is chosen through a series of interviews between the Yale College dean and the 12 masters, during which the masters describe what they would like to see in a council head. The dean then makes a recommendation to University President Peter Salovey, who has final approval.
The current heads of the 12 residential colleges did not return requests for comment regarding the criteria that they take into consideration when describing a leader.
Holloway said Davis had said from the start that he hoped to open a conversation about the title of “master.” Still, Holloway noted that he was surprised by the nature of Davis’s announcement, in which he not only renounced the title of “master” but also spoke at length of the deeply problematic racial and gendered connotations of the word. The way Davis framed his request “changed the tenor of the conversation,” Holloway said.
“The title ‘master’ would come up every so often, just as the name of Calhoun would come up every so often,” Holloway said. “Neither had the intensity in the past they do now.”
Students expressed mixed opinions on Davis’ move, with all four Pierson students interviewed stating that it was fair for Davis to make the announcement before having a consensus from the other college masters.
Alex Buhimschi ’17, a Pierson student, noted that Davis emphasized that dropping the title was his own decision.
“He didn’t make it as if everyone should do it,” said Edward Kong ’16, also in Pierson. “I feel that people should be able to speak for their own hearts.”
But three out of 10 students interviewed disagreed, noting that it would have been better if Davis had discussed the matter with his peers before speaking out. Some felt that Davis’ announcement did exactly what Kong said it did not: Perhaps inadvertently, Davis applied pressure to the other college leaders to follow suit in dropping the title.
“His announcement, especially the way he framed it, was as if he was forcing other masters to make changes as well,” said Grace Niewijk ’18, adding that Davis “absolutely” should have discussed the matter with his colleagues before making a public announcement.
Davis wrote in his original announcement that any decisions about the title’s usage outside of Pierson lay out of his hands, but he promised to “advocate for change” where he could. Holloway also said that among the masters, there is no unanimity on either side of the debate.
Hours after Davis’s announcement was posted to the popular Facebook forum “Overheard at Yale,” Trumbull Master Margaret Clark commented on the post that she was in complete agreement with Davis.
But Silliman Master Nicholas Christakis said in an interview earlier this month that he thought excessive attention to the title itself would detract from productive conversation about underlying problems of racism and inequality. Yale students, Christakis said, have more important things to talk about.
Christakis added, “I can’t think of a better title than master actually.” Alternatives that have been suggested, like magister, provost or warden, he said, do not seem workable. Still, in a survey of the student body which the News administered last week, 55 percent of the student respondents thought “head” was a feasible alternative. Davis declined to comment.
The power to officially change the titles of the residential college heads lies with the Yale Corporation, though masters are free to ask students to call them by whatever nickname or title they prefer.