The Yale Political Union last night debated the renaming of Calhoun College, a controversial issue that has polarized campus and generated national media coverage in recent months.
More than 100 students gathered in Sudler Hall Tuesday to hear African American Studies professors Emily Greenwood and Gerald Jaynes discuss the future of Calhoun College, named for former U.S. vice president and outspoken slavery proponent John C. Calhoun, class of 1804. The college’s name has drawn significant scrutiny in the aftermath of the June massacre of nine African-American churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina.
On campus, over 1,500 students signed a petition calling for the college to be renamed. In his annual address to freshmen last month, University President Peter Salovey encouraged “thoughtful and public discussion” of the issue. Additionally, earlier this month at a well-attended Master’s Tea, history professor David Blight discussed the political legacy of Calhoun, who infamously described slavery as a “positive good.”
But despite — or perhaps because of — significant campus conversation on the topic, students interviewed after the YPU debate said the speakers mostly failed to alter their existing opinions.
During her speech, Greenwood argued that the name should be changed because the pro-slavery beliefs Calhoun promoted are at odds with Yale’s core values. She said Calhoun abused his Yale education by suppressing the liberty and human rights of the slave population, adding that it would be complacent for the University to ignore the offense the name causes to many black students.
“It helps inscribe racial prejudice in the very architecture,” she said. “Future generations of Yale students will look back at these debates as they attempt to reconstruct what was important to us.”
At the end of her speech, Greenwood pushed back against the widespread view that changing the name would preclude further reflection on the United States’ history of racism. In fact, she said, name changes broaden public awareness of historical issues by drawing attention to the evolution of social norms.
“We have excellent archives,” she said.
But Jaynes countered that the 1933 naming decision should remain in place as a valuable reminder of the problematic yet historically significant views Yale administrators held in the 1930s.
While he conceded that Calhoun committed a series of reprehensible “transgressions against justice” during his five years as a U.S. senator, Jaynes argued that renaming Calhoun would create a slippery slope, forcing the University to seek alternate names for several other buildings.
“We can’t go after John C. Calhoun because he’s a convenient target if we don’t root out every vestige of injustice we find on campus,” Jaynes said.
Three of four students interviewed said they entered the debate with strong opinions about the naming of Calhoun. All four said the debate ultimately did nothing to change their views on the issue.
Cameron Koffman ’19, who does not support renaming the college, said he was disappointed in Jaynes’ speech, even though he agreed with its conclusion.
“You can use the slippery slope for almost everything,” Koffman said.
He also acknowledged that Greenwood made a strong case for changing the name of the college, although he said she oversimplified parts of her argument.
Julia Salseda ’19 said the two speakers merely reiterated a series of arguments already being made on campus.
“The arguments bandied about are generally the same no matter where you go,” Salseda said.
Calhoun College Master Julia Adams has declined to take a position on the naming controversy.