While two of Yale’s peer institutions have already made decisions to remove the word “master” from their residential housing systems, Yale continues to deliberate, with the Council of Masters discussing the title at its regular meeting last Friday.
Prompted largely by recent student activism across the nation demanding racial justice on college campuses, Harvard and Princeton made swift decisions to officially abolish the title “master” over the past two weeks: Harvard’s announcement came less than two weeks after portraits of black professors at Harvard Law School were covered with black tape, and Princeton’s came two weeks earlier. At Yale, however, where discussions about the title “master” have arguably been more public and more sustained, the administration has yet to announce a decision. Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway and the 12 residential college masters continue to work on developing a recommendation for University President Peter Salovey about the use of the controversial title. The recommendation will ultimately be presented to the Yale Corporation for a final decision.
Although discussions around campus and within the Council of Masters have been ongoing since August, and the masters continue to discuss the title, Yale’s responsiveness on the issue is slowed, at least in part, by the fact that the abolishment of the title “master” would involve a change to the University bylaws and must be approved by the Corporation.
“The title ‘master’ is built into the bylaws of the University, not in an emphatic way, but in a more passing way,” Holloway said. “Because it is in the bylaws, a change in the title can only be decided by the Corporation. I have learned that for this to happen, there has to be a deliberative process that consists of several steps, one of which is a submission of a formal recommendation to the Corporation.”
The University bylaws do not directly require that the head of a residential college be called “master,” but instead treats “college master” as an accepted position without much focus on the actual title. For example, the bylaws state that “The affairs of each college shall be under the direction of a master, a dean and a body of fellows … The master shall serve as executive officer and with the aid of the fellows shall exercise supervision over the general welfare of the college.”
The Council of Masters has not yet reached a decision on a recommendation, but Holloway said the group will make one to Salovey by the end of winter break.
Harvard’s administration made the announcement that it would abolish the title “house master” from its undergraduate residential housing system on Dec. 1, after its 12 house masters unanimously agreed to change the title. Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Michael Smith approved the recommendation, which also received the support of Harvard President Drew Faust before it was announced to Harvard students. At Princeton, the university’s official statement announcing the title change from “master of the residential college” to “head of college” on Nov. 18 stated that the masters of the school’s six residential colleges had made the decision.
Although the Yale administration is unlikely to announce a change in the official title of “master” in the immediate future as the Corporation does not convene again until February, Holloway said masters have always been able to determine their “inward-facing” titles. Citing his own experience as master of Calhoun College, Holloway said he was often referred to not as “Master Holloway” but as “Dr. J.” He said this has always been the practice: the heads of colleges hold the “outward-facing” official title of “master” but can choose how students address them in practice.
Religious studies professor and head of Pierson College Stephen Davis sparked campus discussion in August when he told members of the Pierson community to address him as “Dr. Davis” instead of “Master Davis,” citing the racial and gendered implications of the title. Yet he remained the chair of the “Council of Masters.” Holloway said that this is consistent with Davis’ request.
“Dr. Davis just doesn’t want to be called ‘master’ himself, but he understands that his position remains as master. He does not have an issue with that and what the institutional title is,” Holloway said.
Davis and four other college masters either declined to, or could not be reached for, comment.
All five students interviewed said that they support changing the title of “master,” although many declined to give their opinions on Yale’s relative sluggishness compared to its peer institutions. Rita Wang ’19 said she is frustrated by the University’s inaction, noting that she wanted Yale to be a leader in changing the title of “master,” but the administration seems very hesitant to act.
“It can be a personal choice for each college master [whether they prefer to change the name], but I think because Princeton and Harvard already decided to drop the title, that says a lot about what Yale should do,” she said.
Wang acknowledged that the administration might be hesitant to announce a plan unless it is comprehensive, because Yale has been receiving a lot of media attention due to recent campus events. Still, Wang said the title of “master” should be abolished immediately.
Jack Taperell ’18 said he was not surprised by Harvard’s and Princeton’s rapid decisions to change the title of “master.” He speculated that the temperature of the student movements on those campuses may have enabled the administration to move quickly, although he said he is not aware of the campus climate at other institutions. He said that so long as things keep moving and conversations keep happening to remind people of the issue at hand, Yale will eventually move to reach a decision as well.
Alexandra Torresquintero ’16 said she views the decisions at Harvard and Princeton as part of the nationwide movement at universities to improve the racial climate by becoming more progressive, accepting and welcoming of diverse viewpoints.
Wang said Yale has an obligation to continue promoting this movement.
“In order to continue seeing ourselves as a peer institution with Harvard and Princeton, [Yale] needs to take action,” she said.