To President Peter Salovey, to the members of the Yale Corporation, to all who played a role in choosing to retain the name of Calhoun College and in choosing to christen Benjamin Franklin College, I say no.
Much has already been said about these decisions, and much will undoubtedly be said in the days to come. The universally outraged reactions on social media were telling. The decision to change the title of “master” is long overdue, and the choice of honoring Pauli Murray LAW ’65 is an inspired one; she was a pioneer and is an inspiration. But Calhoun and Franklin — oy vey. The decision to keep Calhoun was clearly motivated by a retrograde philosophy that is paternalistic at best — oh, these silly students are so easily offended and don’t know what’s best for them — and racist at worst. And the decision to name a college after Franklin — a fascinating and in many ways revolutionary man, but a slaveowner early in his life and one completely unconnected from Yale — would be simply confounding if Salovey hadn’t revealed its motivation in his email: This is what Charles B. Johnson ’54 wanted. And what Yale’s single largest donor wants, Yale’s single largest donor gets.
But not this time. This is idiotic. This is disgusting. We should say no.
As an act of protest, we should refuse to refer to Calhoun College as “Calhoun College.” We should refuse to refer to Franklin College as “Franklin College.” When discussing these colleges, we should not call them by these names. I know I won’t.
This whole awful situation reminds me of when I was touring Brown University as a high school junior. My tour group walked past a large, white, brick-like building and our guide told us in passing that this was the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library, but everyone just referred to it as “the Rock.” The guide chuckled and mentioned that a few years before, the Rockefeller family learned that students called the library “the Rock,” and they told the administration to instruct the students to refer to it by its full, proper name. Bending to the will of these wealthy donors (of course), the administration complied. Students, however, did not. In protest, they started to call the library “the John.” The name caught on. Hastily, and sheepishly, the Rockefellers told the administration to instruct the students to call it “the Rock” again. The students won.
Names are powerful. Hence the emotional resonance of this decision. Aung San Suu Kyi, who was honored through Yale’s Chubb Fellowship four years ago, has long referred to her homeland as Burma, not Myanmar (the name preferred by the military junta in charge). Countries that support her, and the Burmese people, have followed suit. In this small but powerful act, Suu Kyi and her supporters strike a symbolic blow at those who would discount their voices. The situation at Yale is obviously not as important as the one in Burma, but it is important enough to merit resistance.
Students are powerful. Murray would never have been chosen; “master” would never have been banished and Calhoun would never have been reconsidered at all were it not for the extraordinary activism, led by students of color, which rocked campus this year. We can still change these names. Perhaps the Yale College Council — or some group — could send out a poll so that students could select the names we will all call them instead: Hopper College, Cloud College, Bolin College, or what have you. I have a feeling that more activism is yet to come, and the first and easiest step can be simply to refuse to use these colleges’ designated names.
This is about whether or not we acquiesce to the diktats of a group of mostly rich, mostly white, mostly male Corporation members, completely unconnected from Yale. This is about whether or not we acquiesce to the whim of a conservative political activist who has exploited an unfair economic system. This is about whether or not we heed the desire of this man simply because he gave a lot of money. (A lot of money, it should be noted, for the two new residential colleges — the existence of which students overwhelmingly opposed when the News surveyed them after the expansion’s announcement, in 2007 and 2008.)
Over my four years at Yale, I wrote three separate columns regarding the name of Calhoun and the new colleges to come. I followed the debate over these names closely, and I cared about it. In making these decisions, the administration and the Corporation has spit in all of our faces. I am angry. And I am a white man, so I can’t imagine how angry or hurt or just exhausted others without my privilege must be.
We cannot let these decisions stand. I hope the administration and the Corporation knows that this fight is far from over.
We should say no.
Scott Stern is a 2015 graduate of Branford College. He is a former staff columnist for the News. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .