Amidst the tears and painful conversations last semester, a note of optimism hung in the air. The March of Resilience in November affirmed a widespread commitment to, in University President Peter Salovey’s own words, “a better Yale.” Student activists delivered concrete policy demands to administrators, with some tangible results. Despite the University’s past failures to address the concerns of students and faculty of color, there was a glimmer of hope.
At around 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, that hope was unceremoniously dashed.
The Corporation’s decision to change the title of “master” comes as little comfort to those who saw the much-awaited naming decisions as an opportunity to make a better Yale, one sensitive to the evolving needs and values of the University. Salovey’s strained justifications for retaining the name of Calhoun College and christening Benjamin Franklin College made it clear that he was indeed listening — but not to everyone. Wednesday’s announcement constitutes more than a missed opportunity; the decisions represent a failed exercise in trying to appease both students and donors.
A recent survey conducted by the News found that a majority of students — 55 percent — were in favor of renaming Calhoun, yet only 39 percent believed that the college’s name would actually change. These findings reveal a sobering truth: Students do not have faith that the administration takes them seriously. The decision not to rename Calhoun affirms such perceptions, and will only serve to entrench the divide between the campus and its leadership. In his email to the student body, Salovey lauded the “wide engagement, thoughtful conversation and respectful debate that brought us to the decisions announced today.” But respectful debate begins with mutual trust and recognition. How can constructive dialogue proceed when one party’s trust in the other has been thoroughly eroded? The answer is simple: It can’t.
Preserving the Calhoun name would not have undermined the administration’s credibility by itself. But in light of the surrounding announcements, we find it difficult to believe this particular decision arose purely from earnest discussion about Yale’s future.
Pauli Murray LAW ’65, a queer woman of color and civil rights activist, certainly earns her place in the pantheon of Yale alumni. We would be proud to call ourselves members of a college that celebrates her steadfast commitment to justice for all people. However, this news is difficult to celebrate wholeheartedly — Murray College, a symbol of progress and equality, will stand next to Franklin College, whose name seems to have carried a $250 million price tag.
The new college will be permanently engraved with the name of Benjamin Franklin, a slaveowner whose only affiliation with Yale is one honorary degree. That alone is disappointing. But even more disappointing is the thinly veiled admission that one of Yale’s most generous donors, Charles B. Johnson ’54, played an outsized role in the decision. His donation should not have had any bearing on the Corporation’s decision-making process, especially given the lasting significance of the outcome. Roland Betts ’68, a senior fellow of the Yale Corporation, promised in 2008 that even the most liberal donation to Yale could not buy one’s name on a residential college: “The answer is, ‘No,’” he claimed. “We’re not going to do it” (“New college names are not for sale”, Feb. 29, 2008). But apparently, donating can buy one the right to select any other name.
We thus cannot help but view Salovey’s announcements with cynicism. Perhaps members of the Corporation really did spend long hours debating the philosophical trade-offs between keeping and changing the name of Calhoun and considering the long list of qualified candidates to honor with the new residential colleges. But it is clear other motivations were in play. Many alumni expressed a preference to keep the Calhoun name, and considerations of revenue — not justice — seem to have influenced each decision.
Yale will eliminate a title to which few were attached, and name one residential college after a queer woman of color. But in deciding to do so, they have paradoxically insulted the very students who have fought so hard for change. When paired with its calculated verdicts on Calhoun and Franklin College, the symbols of progress start to look rather unprogressive. What the University says, in effect, is this: We care about minority students, just so long as it doesn’t hurt our bottom line. If we throw them a bone with Murray College, perhaps we’ll appear just and enlightened.
This act isn’t fooling anyone. Yale’s administrators have established a tragic and undemocratic precedent, proving, yet again, with whom they stand.