Last week, Calhoun College Master Julia Adams broke her silence on the ongoing campuswide debate over the name of Calhoun, the same day that Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway announced for the first time a deadline for resolving the dispute.
Adams, who had previously declined to take a public position in the dispute, called for the college to be rechristened Calhoun-Douglass College, after the 19th-century African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass. She presented her proposal Thursday evening at a Silliman College forum led by MIT history professor Craig Wilder, the author of “Ebony and Ivy,” a recent book about racism in the Ivy League. The controversy over Calhoun — named for outspoken slavery advocate and white supremacist John C. Calhoun, class of 1804 — began in earnest this summer after the June massacre of nine African-American churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, triggered a national conversation about racially charged symbols. In August, University President Peter Salovey used his freshman welcome address to encourage a campus debate over the naming issue.
“As the most important black American intellectual of the 19th century, Frederick Douglass is a formidable, indeed towering, complement to Calhoun,” Adams said to the audience of around 30 students. “It’s also a good thing from a pedagogical perspective … to have a meaningful renaming that launches us toward the future without erasing a past that is still powerfully influential.”
Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway, who also spoke at the event, announced that Salovey would submit a formal recommendation on the naming dispute to the Yale Corporation sometime in the spring semester. Administrators had not previously publicly specified when they believed the dispute would be resolved.
“Whatever the decision is will need to happen this academic year,” Holloway said.
In an interview with the News, Adams said her views on the issue have only recently taken shape and that her proposed solution to the controversy was one of many suggestions she has received from students over the course of the semester.
Adams said Douglass would be an ideal addition to the college name, even though he never attended Yale.
“The impossibility of his being a Yale College graduate at the time would be a part of what we would be registering with that name,” she said.
The Calhoun-Douglass proposal is one of several compromise solutions that have been put forward over the past few months by students and faculty reluctant to entirely change the name of a historic Yale institution. According to Holloway, many respondents to an online feedback form the University created in September suggested renaming the college Calhoun-Bouchet, after Edward Bouchet, class of 1874, Yale’s first African-American graduate.
Holloway added that the University will consider the Calhoun-Douglass proposal alongside other suggestions, though he did not specify whether he personally supports Adams’ idea.
In interviews with the News, two Yale professors expressed significant reservations about the Calhoun-Douglass name.
Jay Gitlin ’71, who teaches a class on the history of Yale, said he doubts that Calhoun alumni would support naming the college after a non-Yalie.
And African American Studies and Classics professor Emily Greenwood, who spoke in favor of changing the name at an October debate held by the Yale Political Union, said the University should completely retire the name “Calhoun.”
“It would be an offense to Douglass’ memory to yoke his name, by means of a hyphen, to that of a notorious apologist for slavery,” Greenwood said.
In addition, a July petition that helped galvanize support for renaming the college explicitly rejects any hyphenated alternative containing the name Calhoun. The petition has received nearly 1,500 signatures. Katherine Demby LAW ’16, a co-author of the petition, called Adams’ proposal a “poor compromise.”
“They should change the name completely,” Demby said. “Anything in between is a validation of Calhoun, his legacy and his values.”
Four students interviewed expressed conflicting opinions about the naming proposal.
Xander de Vries ’19, who attended the Silliman talk, said he would support any change that alleviates the discomfort of students who object to the current name.
But Sergio Infante ’18 and Ben Healy ’16 both strongly objected to the proposed solution.
Infante said he would prefer to see the college named after a more recent figure than Douglass or Calhoun, adding that framing the issue in purely historical terms underplays the modern-day relevance of racial conflict.
Healy said the hyphenated name would promote a simplified version of the past.
“I’m wary of pitting one historical figure against another,” Healy said. “I don’t know that every person has an equal and opposite person, and I specifically don’t know that Douglass is that for Calhoun.”
Holloway said that he and Salovey would make an announcement in January about the results of the University’s feedback form on the naming debate.