By now you’ve probably heard the news.
Disappointingly, Calhoun stays. And is joined by Ben Franklin — huh?
President Peter Salovey’s announcement yesterday regarding the names of the residential colleges was profoundly discouraging. The potential renaming of Calhoun and the christening of the two new colleges were excellent opportunities to move Yale forward, to celebrate our diversity as well as our excellence and to reject some of our beloved institution’s most troublesome legacies. This was a time for Yale to shed some of its worst legacies of exclusion and stodginess. Unfortunately, Salovey seems to have squandered that precious opportunity.
As a Calhoun alumnus, current faculty member in the medical school and a Calhoun College fellow, I followed the debate surrounding my college’s name with much interest and was anticipating a better resolution. As an undergraduate history major, I appreciate Salovey’s assertion that we cannot and should not whitewash history. But I am also convinced that there are other, more appropriate ways and venues to learn about the legacy of slavery than to continue to emblazon our archways, intramural shirts and diplomas with the name of an “ardent defender of slavery” (Salovey’s words).
In the eight decades that Calhoun College has stood, it has done more to honor the man (implicitly when not explicitly) than to inspire us to face his and our uncomfortable pasts and presents. Salovey’s proposals for history and art projects examining Calhoun’s legacy are intriguing, but I fear they will be insufficient to address the difficult historical issues in a substantial and meaningful way. A college-formerly-known-as-Calhoun-but-now-named-for-someone-more-reflective-of-the-values-of-modern-Yale would spark the types of conversations and examinations that Salovey says he wants on campus. (“Why did they change the name from Calhoun?” would be a question examined for generations.)
As for the names of the new colleges, Salovey should be commended on his selection of Pauli Murray LAW ’65 — an impressive woman (with a genuine Yale affiliation, importantly — see below) whose selection has already inspired me to learn more about her life than I had ever previously known. She personally overcame social obstacles of race, gender and sexuality and was a tremendous champion for civil rights and an erudite scholar in law and theology. It sounds like she is someone whose name I would be proud to have on my college.
As for Salovey’s other selection, it’s hard to argue that Ben Franklin isn’t a pillar of American history with a list of accomplishments that puts just about anyone anywhere at anytime to shame. But Franklin has little to do with Yale (and a heck of a lot to do with another Ivy League institution a few hours south), even if our library has his papers and we once gave him an honorary degree. Of all the numerous people with Yale connections, of all those deserving individuals whose amazing life’s work could have been celebrated publicly (perhaps for the first time), why did we pick someone both so well-known and so-not-Yale?
The cynic in me wonders whether the selection is related to the gift of $250 million from Charles Johnson ’54, former chair of Franklin Templeton Investments. I would hope Yale is above this, but what other explanation could there be?
The naming of the colleges were some of the most public decisions of Salovey’s presidency and will be a large part of his presidential legacy. It certainly seems like he took significant time to hear from a lot of constituents and weigh a lot of options. It’s just too bad he didn’t reach the right conclusions.
Salovey could have been bold. He could have been a real leader of a modern, progressive Yale. Instead, as a result of his decisions, Yale has taken one step forward and two steps back.
Matthew Goldenberg is a 1999 graduate of Calhoun College, Calhoun College fellow and an assistant professor at Yale School of Medicine. Contact him at email@example.com .