Kaifeng Wu

Student support has begun to coalesce around a new potential candidate for the renaming of Calhoun College: Roosevelt Thompson ’84.

On Thursday, a pair of Yale Corporation members — Senior Fellow Margaret Marshall LAW ’76 and Alumni Fellow Eve Hart Rice ’73 — hosted two listening sessions to discuss campus conversations surrounding the potential renaming of Calhoun College and the naming of the two new residential colleges. The first meeting was held exclusively for members of Calhoun College, and the second was open to the entire Yale community. Another open meeting will be held Friday morning. The Corporation has final jurisdiction over naming issues.

During the sessions on Thursday, many students in attendance, through both personal statements and more symbolic gestures, such as the distribution of roses, expressed support for renaming Calhoun after Thompson, a high-achieving African-American student in the college who died tragically in a car accident less than two months before his graduation. The sessions coincided with Thompson’s birthday. He would have been 54.

Marshall told the News that she had not heard many arguments in favor of Thompson prior to the meetings.

“The name of Mr. Thompson hadn’t emerged much before today, so you always have to listen,” she said. “I am not sure the name would have emerged if not for these sessions, but it has.”

In 1980, Thompson left his home in Arkansas — where he was valedictorian of Little Rock Central High, the site of a famous and divisive desegregation effort in 1957 — to start school at Yale. He played on the football team as an undergraduate and recorded a nearly perfect transcript. Thompson was an active member of the Calhoun community, serving on the college council and working as a freshman counselor his senior year. He also worked as an intern for then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton LAW ’73. During his senior year, he was one of only a few dozen students nationwide to earn a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship. But on his way back from spring break in March 1984, Thompson died tragically in a car accident. Newsweek ran a full-page obituary. Clinton cried at his funeral.

At the Calhoun listening session Thursday afternoon, students passed out roses in a gesture of support for renaming the college after Thompson. Of the 35 students who attended, nearly a dozen individually stood up to speak in favor of the college being renamed after him.

Calhoun College Master Julia Adams declined to give her own opinion on whether the college should be renamed in honor of Thompson. Adams has previously called for the college to be rechristened Calhoun-Douglass, after 19th-century abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

Several students said an opinion article published Monday in the News by Calhoun student Alex Zhang ’18 that laid out the case for Thompson helped galvanize their support.

Zhang, who also attended Little Rock High School, said he spent his childhood hearing stories about Thompson.

“There’s really nothing to dislike about this guy, and I knew that many people would find his story resonating,” Zhang said in an interview Thursday. He said that in the days since his column was published, he has received emails from numerous alumni expressing support for the naming proposal.

Students present at the Calhoun session voiced their gratitude to Zhang for bringing Thompson’s story into the spotlight.

“I’m very thankful that he did voice that in so strong a manner, and that it did take a hold in the way it has,” said Austin Strayhorn ’19, who is in Calhoun.

Strayhorn said he first considered Thompson an option in the naming dispute when the founder of the Yale Black Men’s Union devoted an entire speech at the Union’s induction ceremony in September to Thompson’s legacy.

History professor Jay Gitlin ’71 MUS ’74 GRD ’02, who attended the University-wide listening session Thursday evening, said he knew Thompson personally prior to his passing. Calling him a “wonderful young man,” Gitlin said his death was a great tragedy.

Rianna Johnson-Levy ’17, who also attended the later session, told the News that Thompson is “the epitome of what you want a Yale student to be.”

“When we name colleges after alumni we admire, it’s really meaningful to make the category of student as important as statesman or theologian,” she said.

Jon Stein, a former New Haven Register reporter who once interviewed Thompson, said he could not think of a better candidate for the college name.

“If Calhoun is bad because of his view on race, why not replace [him] with an example of what integration can mean?” he said.

A plaque in the Calhoun College courtyard honors Thompson’s memory. Thompson’s portrait also hangs on the wall of the college library, while paintings of Calhoun were recently removed from the dining hall and master’s house.

Correction, Jan. 29: A previous version of this article incorrectly listed the date of a desegregation effort at Little Rock Central High as 1959. The correct date was 1957. The article also incorrectly referred to the high school in question as Little Rock High School. It is actually named Little Rock Central High. 

  • Nancy Morris

    Naming a residential college after someone like Thompson, whose life accomplishments were so much less extraordinary than those of so many others, is a very bad idea. Worse, it is a condescending idea. College is preparation for a life, not a substitute for it.

    When Yale built Morse and Stiles Colleges, the university carefully listened to what kind of colleges the undergraduates really wanted. The results were two disastrous edifices that cost many millions of dollars and several decades to set right. This YDN article reports comments of some opinionated current undergraduates that demonstrate that the long term disasters from paying too much attention to such people would not be limited to those set in stone, concrete and steel. But like the original Morse and Stiles, the currently proposed disasters would persist long after the few years those people spend at Yale. Anyone who cares about Yale will listen carefully to this evanescent proposal, and reject it.

  • marcedward

    Why would you rename a building for somebody who’s accomplishment was showing up? Keep it Calhoun until you can find somebody who’s accomplishments and historical importance mirror Calhoun’s

  • jeffJ1

    The notion of renaming the college “Calhoun-Douglass” is one of the most nonsensical and tone-deaf things I’ve ever heard. I’m not one to take offense easily but that is bordering on offensive and I’m shocked it was suggested in seriousness.

  • rawebb

    I have followed the discussion over a possible Calhoun name change without much emotional involvement or strong opinion. My guess had been that the name would stay. As a long time resident of Little Rock, the suggestion of naming the college for Roosevelt Thompson raises the question to a new level for me. I sense that both my feelings and predictions have changed. Roger Webb, DC ’64

  • ShadrachSmith

    The SJWs at Oxford just got paid, big time, for letting the Cecil Rhodes statue live another day. I assume extortion is the goal here too 🙂

  • Lorenzo Black

    It is clear, from the Shimer/Yaffe-Bellany article, that there is evolving student support for renaming Calhoun College after Roosevelt Thompson. I never knew Roosevelt Thompson – he was years after my time at Yale. But in my heart, and in my mind, I think that decision would be wrong.

    There is no doubt that Roosevelt Thompson was an extraordinary individual, full of insight, spirit and potential. At Yale there is informally (or should formally exist) a pantheon of such individuals who match the ideals put forward in the article – “the epitome of what you want a Yale student to be” / “…meaningful to make the category of student as important as statesman or theologian.”

    It is almost impossible to comprehend the death of a young student. Yale’s pantheon – from just this decade – is full with names of lives and spirits and contributions cut short:

    Marina Keegan, Michele Dufault, Annie Le, Luchang Wang, Meghan Sullivan, Mandi Schwartz, Sean Fenton, Andrew Dwyer, Kyle Burnat, Nicholas Grass

    Beyond that there are decades filled with students who never fulfilled their promise because of death. Every time I walk through the Woolsey Hall rotunda, I pause and think about the individual names etched into to stone.

    I think it would be wrong to single out Roosevelt Thompson as the sole representative of ‘the epitome of what you want a Yale student to be.”
    To do so would ignore the great diversity of back grounds and ideals and
    potential of others who died young. I would hope that the Corporation take into consideration the need to honor students in renaming Calhoun / naming the two new residential colleges. But that should be in an inclusive manner – so students/friends like Roosevelt, and Marina, and Michele and Mandi will always be examples to future generations of Yalies.

  • CentralJerseyMom

    “Roosevelt” Thompson? Quite possible he was named after FDR? I think we will have to consider seriously whether or not the college can be named after a rich white man, even at second hand. Thank God he was not named Washington Thompson though. Also his relationship with Bill Clinton is a microaggression towards women.

  • Lorenzo Black

    Sunday 1/31/2016 8:20AM

    This reply was
    submitted almost 24 hours ago – with no apparent action. Pls. consider this a
    valid and sincerely reply to the article.

    _____________________________________________________

    It is clear, from the
    Shimer/Yaffe-Bellany article, that there is evolving student support for
    renaming Calhoun College after Roosevelt Thompson. I never knew Roosevelt
    Thompson – he was years after my time at Yale. But in my heart, and in my mind,
    I think that decision would be wrong.

    There is no doubt that Roosevelt Thompson was an extraordinary individual, full of insight, spirit and potential. At Yale there is (or should exist) a pantheon of such individuals who match the ideals put forward in the article – “the epitome of what you want a Yale student to be” / “…meaningful to make the category of student as
    important as statesman or theologian.”

    It is almostimpossible to comprehend the death of a young student. Yale’s pantheon – from just this decade – is full with names of lives and spirits and contributions cut short:

    Marina Keegan, Michele Dufault, Annie Le, Luchang Wang, Meghan Sullivan, Mandi Schwartz, Sean Fenton, Andrew Dwyer, Kyle Burnat, Nicholas Grass

    Beyond that there are decades filled with students who never fulfilled their promise because of death. Every time I walk through the Woolsey Hall rotunda, I pause and think about the names etched into to stone.

    I think it would be wrong to single out Roosevelt Thompson as the sole representative of ‘the epitome of what you want a Yale student to be.”
    To do so would ignore the great diversity of back grounds and ideals and
    potential of others who died young. I would hope that the Corporation take into consideration the need to honor students in renaming Calhoun / naming the two new residential colleges. But that should be in an inclusive manner – so students/friends like Roosevelt, and Marina, and Michele and Mandi will always be examples to future generations of Yalies.

  • sy

    YDN January 29, 2016: “During his senior year, he was one of only a few dozen students nationwide to earn a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship.”

    YDN Cross Campus January 29, 2016: “Despite strong campaigning from students to tear down the statue of British imperialist Cecil Rhodes at Oxford University, Oriel College at Oxford has decided against removing it. Earlier this month, Oxford Union — the university’s student government ­— voted 245 to 212 to have the statue torn down.”

    • Genesis 6:9

      it’s a pity that Yale is unable to learn from Oxford–when they imported the residential college model they should have imported some common sense as well.

  • theburren

    Why has the massive correction at the bottom of the article not yet been published in the print issues of the YDN?

  • ksmyas

    John Brown, Ct born abolitionist who gave his life for the movement would have been a more appropriate choice. The courage he displayed and the punishment he bravely accepted for a cause he knew would not be settled and possibly defeated for decades or more in my opinion is the perfect replacement for a man who represented everything he fought against.