In 1931, the University named a residential college after John Caldwell Calhoun, one of the fiercest advocates of slavery in American history. Eighty-five years later, following heated campus protests and more than two decades of debate over the college’s namesake, the University reaffirmed its decision.
University President Peter Salovey announced the decision to retain the name of Calhoun College as part of a community-wide email Wednesday evening. The controversy over Calhoun — named for the senator, vice president and notorious slavery advocate who graduated from Yale College in 1804 — has spanned a generation. But the naming debate, like a number of similar discussions at colleges across the country, gained new momentum this fall as racially charged protests shook campus.
In his email, Salovey said the University will keep the name so that the community remembers “one of the most disturbing aspects” of its past, rejecting the demands of student activists who argue that the name honors a white supremacist.
“Removing Calhoun’s name obscures the legacy of slavery rather than addressing it,” Salovey wrote in the email. “Erasing Calhoun’s name from a much-beloved residential college risks masking this past, downplaying the lasting effects of slavery and substituting a false and misleading narrative, albeit one that might allow us to feel complacent or, even, self-congratulatory.”
Indeed, John Wilkinson ’60 GRD ’63 — who served as University secretary in the 1980s — said he had hoped Yale would retain the college name to avoid “repealing history.” Head of Silliman College Nicholas Christakis said that he strongly understands student desire to replace the name, but he also does not believe Yale can “absolve itself of itself solely by renaming the college.” Salovey did not respond to repeated requests for comment Wednesday night.
Calhoun College Head Julia Adams said she anticipates a period of reconciliation within her college during which students and administrators will work to heal deep-seated divisions over the naming dispute. Adams invited Calhoun students to an evening meeting at her house to discuss the issue, but the session was attended by just a couple dozen students and ended after only half an hour.
“I remain really proud of the Calhoun students for the way they handled this over the course of the year,” Adams said. “They lent real depth to the discussion, and I think it’s made a difference to the seriousness with which the decision’s been made.”
Adams — who has advocated for renaming the college Calhoun-Douglass, after the 19th-century African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass — added that any solution to the naming dispute had the potential to be “thoughtful and excellent,” depending on the depth and rigor of the discussion following it.
Still, the decision to retain the college name has prompted a furious reaction from campus activists who made renaming Calhoun one of the central demands of their movement last semester.
“A lot of students are hurting,” Calhoun College Dean April Ruiz ’05 said after the announcement. “There are some students who certainly wanted the name to be changed, and they are hurting now. We want to get them to a place where they’re not hurt.”
Adams said Salovey phoned her shortly after the announcement to check on Calhoun students who had advocated for a name change.
Lindsey Hogg ‘17, a Calhoun junior who helped lead the charge within the college for a name change and who will work as a freshman counselor next year, said she reacted to the email with “disbelief and nausea.”
“I’m going to have this class of freshmen coming in next year, and we’re going to have to welcome them into the Calhoun class of 2020, and I don’t know how to do that,” Hogg said. “I would understand if every black student in the class of 2020 who gets placed in Calhoun wants to transfer.”
Austin Strayhorn ’19 — a Calhoun freshman and member of the Black Men’s Union who was active in campus protests last semester — said Wednesday that he has heard some students planning to camp outside Woodbridge Hall because they could no longer stand living in the college.
“[The Yale Corporation’s] unwillingness to change the name of Calhoun College basically shows they are unchanging,” said Sebastian Medina-Tayac ‘16, a member of Next Yale and a staff reporter for the News. “[Calhoun] was an architect of the Confederacy who said slavery was a divine commandment and immortal good.”
Salovey’s email outlined plans for an “interactive history project” on the legacy of Calhoun and a University-wide competition to select artwork responding to the social issue associated with his career to be installed in the college.
Xander de Vries ‘19, who is in Calhoun, said that now that the University has decided to retain the name, it must provide new resources dedicated to racial issues, possibly in the form of weekly talks led by experts in the area.
A former vice president and senator who graduated from Yale College in 1804, Calhoun was born and raised in South Carolina and notoriously defended slavery as a “positive good” at a time when other Southern politicians viewed it as a necessary evil. The naming dispute first emerged as a major campus issue in 1992, when students successfully campaigned for the removal of a stained-glass panel in the college’s common room that depicted a shackled slave kneeling at Calhoun’s feet.
Salovey devoted his annual freshman address in August to launching an “open conversation” on the legacy of Calhoun, against the backdrop of a racially motivated shooting in Charleston, South Carolina that catalyzed national conversations about Confederate symbols and figures. In his speech, Salovey challenged the Yale community to confront questions about history and symbolism.
“Alumni and faculty have written to me and to [Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway] from varying perspectives, some at length and with considerable force,” Salovey said in his address.
The intensity of the Calhoun naming dispute has ebbed and flowed over the course of the academic year. The debate appeared to be winding down in the early months of the fall semester as students tired of the prolonged discussion, before a series of race-related controversies on campus sparked it back into life. In November, around 200 members of Next Yale marched on Salovey’s house in the middle of the night to present a list of demands that included the renaming of Calhoun.
The debate over Calhoun was just one in a series of similar disputes last fall that rippled across college campuses nationwide. Students at Princeton called for the renaming of campus institutions named after former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, arguing that his racist beliefs tarnished his political legacy. The university ultimately elected to retain the honorifics.
At Yale, as the Corporation continued deliberating the University’s three major naming decisions into the spring semester, Adams ordered three oil paintings of Calhoun taken down from their positions in the college’s dining hall and master’s house. In January, Corporation members held two University-wide listening sessions, as well as a Calhoun-only session, to gather student input on the naming dispute and the fate of the two new residential colleges.
At the listening sessions, student support seemed to coalesce around a proposal to rename the college after Roosevelt Thompson, a high-achieving Calhoun alumnus who tragically died just weeks before his graduation in 1984.
“I consider myself a member of Thompson College,” Elisia Ceballo-Countryman ‘18, a leader of Next Yale who is in Calhoun, said earlier this month.
Adams said she was moved by the student support for Thompson and hopes to find alternate ways to honor him, perhaps by hanging his portrait in the dining hall or formally naming the hall after him.
Calhoun College opened its doors in 1933.