Last Thursday evening, just a few dozen undergraduates sat scattered across the nearly 450 empty seats in Yale’s cavernous Law School auditorium. They were gathered to discuss the potential renaming of Calhoun College and the naming of the two new residential colleges with Yale Corporation Senior Fellow Margaret Marshall LAW ’76 and Alumni Fellow Eve Rice ’73. The session, which was also attended by a handful of professors, graduate students and alumni, was planned to last 90 minutes but ended 15 minutes early. A second open session Friday morning drew a similarly small crowd, according to attendees.
But earlier Thursday, around 35 Calhoun College students squeezed into a small room in the Rose Alumni House with Marshall and Rice for a similar purpose. The session, which was closed to students in other colleges, ran 15 minutes longer than planned.
The debate over the future of Calhoun College — named for former U.S. vice-president and slavery advocate John C. Calhoun, class of 1804 — picked up steam over the summer and was the central focus of University President Peter Salovey’s annual freshman address. And last semester, after a series of racially charged controversies on campus generated national headlines, student activists again demanded that the University rechristen Calhoun and name the two new residential colleges after people of color. Students and professors who attended the open sessions said that compared to the hundreds of students who participated in November demonstrations and the consistent interest of those in Calhoun College, the low attendance at the public sessions underscored the growing apathy of the larger University community after prolonged debate and the widespread belief that the discussions were “for show.”
Still, Marshall said it is important that the Corporation take its time in deciding these issues, and that she learned a great deal from the sessions held last week.
“I don’t agree that the debate has gone on for too long — these are serious issues,” she told the News. “And I don’t think the number of students affected the value of the sessions. Many students have communicated their views in different kinds of ways, so we simply wanted to make sure that if anyone hadn’t had an opportunity to do that, we provided one.” Students have also had the option to contribute to an open website that was set up to solicit feedback on the issue.
At the Calhoun-only session, where students distributed roses in honor of Roosevelt Thompson ’84, a beloved African-American graduate of Calhoun who died in a car crash and has emerged as a candidate for the possible renaming, students spoke about their discomfort with the college name, saying that they refuse on principle to eat in its dining hall and that their friends are reluctant to visit them in their suites.
Calhoun Master Julia Adams said she was not surprised that the closed session attracted more interest than the two University-wide meetings. A survey administered by the News in September found that students in Calhoun were less supportive of changing the college’s name than students in the wider Yale community.
“It does fall more directly on this community,” Adams said, referring to the student population of Calhoun. “People are still presenting new ideas and thinking about the name and the symbology in ever more profound ways.”
Students interviewed at the first open listening session said they were underwhelmed by the turnout and felt the discussions were poorly structured.
Jordan Taylor ’13, who attended the Thursday session, said she was frustrated that the moderators limited her speaking time to three minutes even though attendance was low and the session ultimately finished early. The University required students to sign up for the open sessions, and attendees who wished to speak were asked to register at the door.
Rianna Johnson-Levy ’17, another Thursday attendee, said she attributed the low turnout at the open session to widespread skepticism that the Corporation — which has final jurisdiction over the naming disputes and has promised to reach a decision on Calhoun sometime this spring — will take student opinion into account.
“If students really thought these forums would make a difference in the naming of the colleges, more people would have shown up,” Johnson-Levy said.
She added that student distrust for the Corporation stems partly from the University’s refusal last year to divest from fossil fuels, despite months of student activism.
Marshall disputed the notion that the Corporation does not value student input.
“The opinions of students of course had an impact,” she said. “The strength of the views of some of the Calhoun students about a particular naming, Roosevelt Thompson, was important and it gave me an opportunity to engage with people who had interacted with him, which I hadn’t and probably couldn’t have before.”
Two history professors who attended the Thursday session speculated that low turnout could be attributed to student apathy about the debate rather than skepticism about the Corporation’s receptiveness to feedback.
Jay Gitlin ’71 MUS ’74 GRD ’02, widely known as the University’s unofficial historian, said the low turnout is indicative of declining student interest in the naming disputes over the last few months.
“I think the turnout shows that many students have had enough of this conversation,” Gitlin said. “It doesn’t mean it’s not important. It just means a lot of people have moved on.”
And history professor David Blight, who partly specializes in the Civil War and Reconstruction era and hosted a Master’s Tea centered on the naming of Calhoun in September, said the dispute should have been settled months ago, adding that the Corporation may be deliberately delaying its announcement until it reaches a verdict on the two new residential colleges as well.
Still, Marshall emphasized the need for the Corporation to be as thorough as possible in listening to the Yale community.
“Any debate of this nature, where we are particularly interested in knowing the views of others, takes as long as it takes for the Corporation to feel it has heard from as many voices as possible,” she said. “So it goes until the Corporation feels ready.”
Wendell Adjetey GRD ’18, a Thursday attendee, said he was disappointed that so many students passed up a rare opportunity to engage with the Corporation in an open setting.
Zhirui Guan ’19, a member of Calhoun College who attended Friday’s session but not the Calhoun-only session, said she was surprised by the low attendance, adding that she initially thought “everyone was going to be there,” but now believes many students have grown tired of the ongoing debate.
Still, according to University Deputy Chief Communications Officer Michael Morand, more than 1,000 people — including undergraduates, professors, alumni and graduate students — have participated in the latest phase of discussion, either by attending one of the public sessions or submitting suggestions in an online forum.
Salovey first announced the open forums as part of a Nov. 17 communitywide email, in which he outlined a series of administrative responses to last semester’s controversies.