There is finally an expiration date on the debate over “master” as the title for residential college leaders. As University President Peter Salovey told the News on April 11, “I can say it is my intention to make these announcements while students are on campus this semester, and not during exams.” This is good. The time has come to resolve the debate about “master.”
This timeline alone already demonstrates some thoughtfulness from the Yale Corporation. Releasing the decision during or after finals week would have been a guerilla attack on the academics of students of color (many of whom already necessarily prioritized Next Yale throughout the fall). Releasing the decision over summer when students are away from Yale would have been simply cowardly — an obvious effort to choke campus discussion just to keep “Yale” out of the headlines. And waiting until next year would validate the University’s reputation of having a stagnant, opaque and detached bureaucracy.
Knowledgeable, articulate people on both sides of the conversation have already spilled intelligent ink — in DOWN, in the News and on Facebook. The debate has happened already. Those who want to change the title cite America’s history of slavery. A master in a Master’s House often makes students of color feel unsafe or unwelcome in their collegiate home. In opposition, those who want to keep “master” cite its nonracial ties to the Oxford and Cambridge system. Moreover, they cite concerns over free speech and the importance of accepting discomfort at college — Socrates’ gadflyism, so to speak.
But rather than repeat the same debate, let’s just agree the “they do it at Oxford” argument is utter bogus. Harvard and Princeton have recently dropped the “master” title, thus shriveling the “peer institutions” claim. And although proponents of this viewpoint claim “master” carried no initial intentional baggage of slavery when Yale adopted it from Oxbridge in the 1930s, if there were voices of color included in this pre-Civil Rights era conversation — one wonders — would we ever have called it a “Master’s House”? The United Kingdom has a radically different history with domestic slavery. The connotations of “master” across the two countries are simply not commensurable.
It is time to change “master.” Why? Because it’s just not that important. This symbolic debate has detracted and distracted from more pressing issues for far too long, and both the student body and the Corporation have much bigger fish to fry.
Allowing this word to remain in purgatory has already given enough fodder to Internet chatter. To those peering into Yale’s campus, this unresolved issue made (and still makes — the clock is ticking toward finals) the Corporation seem weak and indecisive. But more perniciously, the comments section on any article written about this topic has condemned student activists as whiny and ineffective. Neither critique is valid — student activists are not “SJWs” (social justice warriors) and administrators are not utterly spineless. Yet these conversations about collegiate activism have titillated hordes of internet commentators, both liberal and not, for far too long. Everyone trying to get across this bridge has had to contend with trolls.
From within Yale, this debate reads a lot like bullying on the part of the Corporation, which exists to steward Yale — approving the expansion of Yale College, newly endowed professorships and selecting future University leaders. By not prioritizing this naming conversation, the Corporation implicitly has not prioritized students of color. And this seven-month stretch since Pierson’s Dr. Stephen Davis publicly asked people not to call him “master” has seemed more like a petty silent treatment than dialogue between rational adults.
Changing “master” would be a small step toward thawing institutional racist permafrost. This could be a moment for Salovey and the Corporation to symbolically acknowledge that yes, students of color are out here. And yes they have been here, and yes, they are not leaving. And yes, most importantly, they are loved and respected by the University.
If “master” is a “microaggression,” then changing it would be a “microprotection.” “Master” is a tiny thorn to extract from an already stinging paw — a way to make Yale more hospitable to our entire community. No one thinks this is the second coming in combating campus racism. But that is the whole point — it’s “micro.” If small changes like this accumulated, they actually could make a big difference in Yale’s racial climate.
Revoking “master” is such an easy gesture of faith for the Corporation to make that it would be silly not to change it. It would have no impact on the practicalities of running a residential college, but would be an important symbolic victory for students of color.
Listening to students — it’s not a hard thing to master.
Amelia Nierenberg is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. Her column runs on Thursdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .