Harvard and Princeton have both officially abolished the title of “master” for the heads of their residential houses, the former caving to students’ demands, the latter preempting expected calls for change. People across the country know the narrative by now. The term “master,” some argue, carries historical baggage that places an unjust burden on students of color. Harvard College Dean Rakesh Khurana explained in an email to the student body, “The desire to change this title has taken place over time and has been a thoughtful one, rooted in a broad effort to ensure that the college’s rhetoric, expectations and practices around our historically unique roles reflects and serves the 21st-century needs of residential student life.”
Let’s break down Khurana’s statement. He calls Harvard’s “roles” (a rather unnecessary pluralization) “historically unique.” This claim, though it might sate the egos of our Cambridge counterparts, is patently false. Neither Harvard, nor Princeton, nor any single institution of higher education inhabits a historically unique position on its own. In fact, Harvard and similar institutions are part of a long and rich tradition of scholarship dating back nearly a thousand years. The first university was established in Bologna in 1088. Since then, universities have been citadels of truth where those seeking knowledge could engage in earnest, worthwhile inquiry.
The characteristic that distinguished the University of Bologna from other educational institutions — what made it historically unique — was the privilege it conferred upon intellectuals. In 1158, Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa issued the Authentica Habita, which gave scholars the same rights and legal immunities as the clergy. The university system gave academics a haven in which they could work outside of the confines of society. It is from this tradition, carried on by universities around the world, that our institutions adopted the title “master.” Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway explained that this title is “nothing more than a legacy of the British Oxbridge system that Yale was blatantly trying to emulate when it created the residential college system in the early 1930s.” Harvard, Yale and other universities inherited their roles: the facilitators of honest academic inquiry away from the whims of society.
Khurana goes on to assert that the college must serve the “needs of residential student life.” Must it? In the 1960s, college students clamored to reform what they saw as an antiquated in loco parentis model of higher education. Before then, universities looked after their students carefully, imposing curfews, mandatory religious services and sexual restrictions. Harvard professor of educational studies Phillip Lee explains, “the in loco parentis doctrine allowed universities to exercise great discretion in developing the ‘character’ of their students without respect to their students’ constitutional rights.” Eventually, courts had to step in to restore university students’ freedoms.
After this model changed, universities became places of transgression and subversion. Without administrators obstructing the free expression of ideas, students gained the ability to explore different intellectual, spiritual and sexual frontiers. During the civil rights movement, colleges were a haven for the expression of then-radical ideas that came to the fore because of the culture of openness provided by college campuses. Indeed, the freedom afforded to students in the 1960s is one reason we have such a diverse student body at Yale today.
The idea of studying at a free and open university excited me during high school. I came to Yale looking not only to engage in serious intellectual discourse, but also to see new things, to be exposed to ideas and people that discomfited and changed me. Instead, I have found an intellectually sterile environment. Afraid to offend others, students toe the line drawn by political correctness. Facing immense pressure to succeed, we shy away from danger and novelty. The sheltered, “safe” environment at Yale is not unlike that of most high schools in America: We do our homework, we partake in extracurriculars and we try to have fun on weekends. But shouldn’t college be about more than that?
In the email back in August that started this whole kerfuffle, Pierson College Master — yes, I still call him master — Stephen Davis claimed, “There should be no context in our society or in our university in which an African-American student, professor or staff member — or any person, for that matter — should be asked to call anyone ‘master.’” In saying this, Davis not only ignores the history and context of the title, but also sets a dangerous precedent of administrators operating as caretakers. When a protester told Silliman College Master — yes, Master — Nicholas Christakis that the purpose of the residential college was to create a home and not an intellectual space, I understood her point. But perhaps we are at Yale in order not to have a home. Perhaps the most unique opportunity Yale offers us is a space free from societal mores, distinctly suited to radical self-expression, subversive politics and offensive ideas.
Daniel Tenreiro-Braschi is a freshman in Ezra Stiles College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .