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.

KEEPING CALHOUN

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.

  • Malcolm Pearson

    These decisions are in keeping with a long tradition of intellectual incoherence and moral pusillanimity at Yale. I am an old Calhoun alum, class of 1978, and the direct descendent of slaveholders and white supremacists. The decision to honor Calhoun when the college was built was execrable, and the decision to retain it now is almost beyond comprehension. Calhoun was the proponent of a theory of the moral good of slavery thought ridiculous and self-serving in his own time. He was the intellectual father of nullification and secession, at whose feet we may lay the Civil War. It’s not necessary to judge him by the terms of our culture. We can judge him best by the words of the President under whom he served as Vice President. Andrew Jackson said of Calhoun, “I would hang him, if I could.”

    All of the historical instruction and conversation that Salovey proposes could easily have been done in a college renamed for someone else. To leave the name on the college is an act of breathtaking moral blindness.

    Well, good old Yale.

    • Tim Steele

      Malcolm, to follow your point to its logical conclusion, do we change all names on buildings whose namesake meets your definition of “breathtaking moral blindness”? Surely there are others, at Yale and elsewhere but where does it all end? President Salovey refers to this as the slippery slope argument and I for one agree with him. Were Ezra Stiles’ views on slavery less repugnant than those of Calhoun? Elihu Yale had direct ties to the slave trade. You get the point.

      • Malcolm Pearson

        Hi Tim, thanks for your response. I’ve heard this from others. Life is full of slippery slopes. If I eat one cupcake on a plate should I logically eat all of them? If we send military advisers to Syria, should we logically send the 82nd Airborne? Well, you get the point.

        Each case must stand on its own. We have to use something called judgment to make these discriminations. I’m not familiar with Ezra Stiles’ views on slavery, but was his great contribution to American intellectual history a defense of slavery as a moral good? I think not. I’m not sure of Elihu Yale’s exact connection to the slave trade but was his fundamental contribution to civilization the political justification for a great war and the deaths of 600,000 combatants? Again, I think not.

        Yale is welcome to continue to honor John C. Calhoun by naming a college for him. But if it does, it should do so on the merits of Calhoun’s life and thought. The “slippery slope” argument is simply disingenuous, and the proponents of honoring Calhoun should be honest about their advocacy.

  • branford73

    On the title “master”, I agree with Williamson ’80– the change was silly and unnecessary but not worth being troubled over in a big way. I suggested a change to “Magi” but no one pays attention to me.

    On Calhoun I am in favor of a change, for the reasons Malcolm here states. Calhoun was not just a slave owner, he was a proponent of the institution and lead his state and others to a bloody war over it. He was a traitor to the United States in the most classical way one can commit treason. His presence at Yale or at the residential college need not and should not be erased, put his portrait back up, but the college should be renamed.

    On Franklin, I think it’s ridiculous and venal. Mr. Johnson’s admiration for Franklin is not misplaced (he’s my favorite of the Founding Fathers) but that should have been acknowledge by some other less prestigious building or maybe a courtyard. If Harvard men with an honorary degree were eligible, why not Roosevelt? At least Teddy is on record as having said nice things about Yale, at his degree presentation:
    “I have never yet worked at a task worth doing that I did not find myself working shoulder to shoulder with some son of Yale. I have never yet been in a struggle for righteousness and decency that there were not men of Yale to aid me and give me strength and courage.”