To symbolize their argument that the name of a new residential college can be bought, dozens of students at a town hall held Thursday afternoon threw fake money toward the main speaker: University President Peter Salovey.
On Wednesday, Salovey announced the names of the two new residential colleges, the elimination of the title “master” and the retention of the name of Calhoun College. The timing of the decisions, as well as the maintenance of Calhoun and establishment of Benjamin Franklin College, have sparked fierce reactions from many student groups, including those who were particularly vocal last semester on issues of race, diversity and inclusion. By penning the announcement email and hosting a heated town hall the next day, Salovey has sent a clear message: he wants to be held accountable for these decisions.
“I am the president of Yale,” Salovey told the News after the town hall. “It is my job to take responsibility, to listen and to connect with our community.”
This stands in contrast to Salovey’s previous approach to naming decisions. Over the past six months, he told the News repeatedly that the disputes fell under the jurisdiction of the Yale Corporation, and it remains unclear whether he advocated for the four decisions ultimately reached. Following the November protests, he announced public listening sessions between students and Corporation members — not him — to discuss the issues.
Asked why Salovey hosted Wednesday’s session without Corporation members, Secretary and Vice President for Student Life Kimberly Goff-Crews told the News after the town hall that none were available. But Vice President for Communications Eileen O’Connor said that to her knowledge, involving the trustees was never under consideration.
So on Thursday, Salovey effectively faced the Yale community alone. Many who attended the town hall wore duct tape over their mouths to signify that the University had ignored their voices in making these decisions, while others threw fake money at him from the Battell Chapel balcony to protest the naming of a college after Franklin, a “personal role model” of Charles Johnson ’54, whose $250 million donation seems to have strongly influenced the naming of one of the new colleges.
“Honestly, I really feel like Salovey just tried to please all of us but said almost nothing,” Ryan Wilson ’17, who attended the town hall, said. “It was a lot of people airing their grievances and him saying he is worried about the same things without proposing any real steps to address them. I feel like it was all an empty gesture — bringing us in after the decision was already made.”
Still, Salovey said he wanted to host the town hall because he knew he would leave “thinking differently.” Goff-Crews said that from her perspective, students were interested in hearing directly from Salovey — a member of the Corporation and its public spokesman.
Many students have criticized Salovey’s administration for waiting to release the naming decisions until the end of the semester, seeing the timing as an attempt to inhibit student activism. The University was originally slated to make its announcements yesterday evening but expedited the process when the News broke the “master” and Calhoun decisions Wednesday afternoon.
“It is very smart of them to announce the decisions when students will be most stressed and right before they leave — it is a smart, strategic move,” Elisia Ceballo-Countryman ’18, a leader of the student activist group Next Yale, said earlier this month.
Indeed, while O’Connor has said the University had to work out logistics over the past few weeks, she told the News on Wednesday that long-term conversations between the administration and the Corporation ended during the body’s April 7–9 meeting.
One senior attending the town hall lamented that Corporation members, presented as the ultimate decision-makers on naming issues up until the announcements, never had to “face students.” Now it seems authority has transitioned to Salovey, at least publicly, the student said.
Grace Alofe ’18, also at the town hall, said she was unsurprised that no Corporation members came.
“They’re not a body with a face except for President Salovey. That being said, it would be nice if they saw the students they’re hurting,” Alofe said. “I only hold him accountable for not being completely honest about the impact of donations. There is a lack of transparency that leads to a lack of trust. If he were more transparent we would know exactly to what extent he should be held accountable for the outcome of these naming decisions.”
Despite this shift in public presentation, it remains unclear whether the Corporation reached naming decisions as a body — as Salovey long said it would — or whether it followed his formal recommendations. Both O’Connor and Salovey declined to comment on whether Salovey advocated for the four decisions announced on Wednesday.
“Deliberations at Corporation meetings are confidential,” Salovey said after the town hall. “There will be a written record in 50 years. I can’t answer the question now.”