In the hours after University President Peter Salovey announced resolutions to three long-standing campus naming debates, the decisions reverberated throughout a community of over 150,000 Yale alumni worldwide.
In a campuswide email on Wednesday, Salovey wrote that Calhoun College would not be renamed, the title of residential college master would change to “head of college” and Yale’s two new residential colleges would be named after Anna Pauline Murray LAW ’65 and Benjamin Franklin. Salovey made it clear from the outset of the naming debates that alumni opinions — along with those of students, faculty and staff — would be considered in the decision-making process. But as with any group as large and diverse as the body of living Yale alumni, Wednesday’s announcement generated widely varying responses to each of the three decisions.
The most high-profile of the naming decisions announced Wednesday might also have been the most controversial — to retain the name Calhoun.
Alumni interviewed, including those who were in Calhoun during their time as undergraduates, expressed no clear consensus on the issue. Some argued that Yale should refuse to honor the legacy of John C. Calhoun, one of American history’s most notorious slavery advocates, while others spoke of the need to preserve history in order to keep conversations alive, as Salovey did in his campuswide email.
Calhoun alumnus David Dunn Bauer ’81 said he was disappointed in the University’s decision not to change Calhoun’s name, adding that the University could have used the opportunity to make a positive statement about inclusion.
“As an alumnus, I would have been happy to explain to people that when I went to Yale there was a college called Calhoun College, but that since then, Yale had thought better of it and renamed it according to an ethos that we could support,” Bauer said.
Alex Funk ’96, who was also in Calhoun, said he too wished Yale had decided to change the name. By keeping it, Yale has taken on the responsibility of compensating in other ways, he said. In his email, Salovey said the University will begin an interactive history project, starting with an examination of the legacy of John C. Calhoun, as well as art installations on the grounds of the college.
But many alumni also defended the University’s decision to keep the name. Calhoun alumnus Mark Richards ’79, like several others interviewed, argued that despite his staunch advocacy for slavery, Calhoun was an important historical figure nonetheless.
“Calhoun was both a giant of his time and a product of his time,” Richards said. “He was one of the few men whose governmental actions directly saved our nation from defeat by foreign powers in its infancy. His importance to our nation is indisputable.”
Another point raised repeatedly by those in favor of maintaining Calhoun’s name, including Salovey, is that keeping it would force students and faculty to confront Calhoun’s past. Laura Farwell ’85 said she was pleased that the college was not renamed, as it ensures that repugnant, horrid aspects of Calhoun’s legacy will be remembered.
Joe Staley Jr. ’59, who serves as class secretary, was against changing the name, which he said would be akin to sticking one’s head in the sand and refusing to confront America’s past. T. Wayne Downey ’57 said that Calhoun’s legacy of slavery is one that still needs to be reckoned with today.
“When it comes to how to deal with difficult aspects of history, the better answer is always to acknowledge where you came from, and let that be a beacon or source of information for where you need to go,” Rek LeCounte ’11 said.
FRANKLIN DRAWS SCRUTINY
Most alumni interviewed were not familiar with Murray, and an overwhelming majority also said they supported the University’s decision to name a college after an individual who was not a white male. But an overwhelming number of alumni interviewed were confused by the University’s decision to name a college for Benjamin Franklin, who had just tangential ties to Yale.
“They might as well have picked George Washington,” said Nancy Alderman ’94 FES ’97. “What was that about?”
Alderman was not alone in her reaction: Many alumni indicated that they would have liked for the new colleges to be named after someone with closer ties to Yale. While Franklin received an honorary master’s degree from the University in 1753, he was never a Yale student.
Funk said that Yale missed the opportunity to diversify the college namesakes in a meaningful way, a notion exacerbated by the fact that Franklin did not attend Yale. If Yale were considering another white slave-owning male after which to name a college, it could have at least taken one from its pool of notable alumni, he said.
He added that having Murray — a queer woman of color — as the only college named after someone who is not a white male, gives the impression that Murray College was just a sop thrown to leftists, rather than a genuine change of course for the University.
“This impression is strongly reinforced by the retention of Calhoun as the namesake of my college,” Funk said. “Since Yale attendance no longer appears to be required for the honor, I can only conclude that the Yale administration considers Calhoun’s contributions to intellectual history to outrank those of Confucius, Buddha, Aristotle, Jesus, Erasmus, Gandhi and every woman that has ever lived, other than Murray.”
LITTLE CONCERN FOR “MASTER”
While alumni generally did not think the title “master” needed to be changed, those who were not offended by the term were also not especially disappointed to see it go.
Arthur Segal ’69, who serves as class secretary and who was against changing the name of Calhoun, said he was willing to see the term “master” change, as it has a denigrating connotation. Head of college, on the other hand, is a genderless and benign replacement, he said.
Scott Williamson ’80, former president of the Yale Club of Chicago, called the change “silly,” but added that worrying about it was not worth the emotional effort. Still, Williamson said he does not know of anyone who thinks that changing the name to “head” will have any significant impact on inclusivity and acceptance at Yale.
“The whole exercise of redefining a fit title with long-standing meaning seems based upon an unnecessary effort to help solve a hurt that has its genesis elsewhere,” Williamson said.
Not everyone who thought Calhoun needed to change thought the same of the term “master,” with Calhoun garnering the strongest alumni opinions.
“I think of the term ‘master’ in terms of the verb — to master knowledge of something, or a subject,” Bauer said. “It’s not a word that triggers me the way the name Calhoun does.”
Shuyu Song contributed reporting.