Austin Strayhorn ’19, a student in Calhoun College, was napping in his dorm room when the University announced Wednesday evening that it would retain the name of the college. He was awakened by screams of disgust from the next room, as his suitemates reacted angrily to the news.
“The next couple weeks, it’s not going to be easy to be here [in Calhoun College],” said Strayhorn, who is African-American. “This thing hasn’t made it easier on the students of color … We’ll find other places to be.”
The naming announcement — which came in a Wednesday evening email from University President Peter Salovey alongside verdicts on the title of “master” and the naming of the two new residential colleges — has provoked a furious reaction from student activists both within Calhoun and throughout the larger University community. But the news has had a particularly emotional impact on students in the college, many of whom have campaigned all year for the name to be changed. In the wake of the decision, Calhoun Head Julia Adams has announced a series of initiatives designed to heal wounds in the student community, including a proposal to name a space in the college after former Calhoun student Roosevelt Thompson ’84, who was a popular candidate to replace Calhoun as the college’s namesake. But the naming decision has exposed fissures within Calhoun that some students fear will strain the community spirit of the college.
“This is a complicated time, harder on you than on the denizens of any other residential college,” Adams wrote in a Thursday email to Calhoun students. “We will figure out how to best move forward together, as a family. The best kind of family, in fact.”
Adams told the News that over the next few days she hopes students will approach her with more ideas for new activities and initiatives designed to generate discussion and ease the pain of students reeling from the decision.
In interviews and posts on social media, however, Calhoun students have expressed concerns about the future of the college community.
Elisia Ceballo-Countryman ’18, a Calhoun student who helped lead protests last fall, wrote in a Facebook post that she intends to transfer out of the college as soon as possible.
“Yale is upholding slavery every minute they don’t chisel [Calhoun’s] name from the walls that house Black bodies,” Ceballo-Countryman wrote. “I have no response for now but silent tears and an inability to do my homework.” Ceballo-Countryman did not respond to a request for comment.
And Strayhorn told the News on Wednesday that some Calhoun students are planning to camp outside rather than remain within a college whose name they find deeply offensive.
“I don’t think that any option would be off the table now,” he said.
Strayhorn added that he doubts the well-intentioned outreach efforts of Adams and Calhoun Dean April Ruiz — who sent him a consoling text after the decision was announced — will make much of a difference to students who were left emotionally shattered by the naming decision. Still, he said he believes Adams has become more supportive and accessible as the year has gone by, after students initially questioned her attention to their concerns. Adams did not publicly take a position on the name of Calhoun College until November — two months after Salovey opened a public conversation about the issue — when she came out in support of changing the name to Calhoun-Douglass College, after 19th-century African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
“It didn’t seem like [Adams] gave her full support to a full name change, and that called into question how much she was there for students of color,” Strayhorn said. “She’s improved a lot. She’s made her support more obvious.”
The aftermath of the naming decision has also raised concerns about how college officials and freshman counselors will explain the controversy to incoming freshmen, who will likely arrive on campus with strong opinions about a dispute that has generated national headlines.
Lindsey Hogg ’17, who will serve as a freshman counselor in Calhoun next year, said she feels “disgusted and sad” and fears that the naming decision will make it impossible to create unity among the incoming class.
But Adams said she remains convinced that the decision will not damage the unity of the college.
Salovey’s email announcing the name change also outlined plans for two initiatives that appear designed to generate discussion and ease students’ pain: an “interactive history project” highlighting the problematic legacy of Calhoun and a University-wide competition to select socially engaged artwork to be installed within the college.
Xander de Vries ’19, who is in Calhoun, praised those initiatives but said the college should go one step further and schedule regular discussion sessions led by experts in racial issues and questions of historical symbolism.
And Strayhorn, who said he has no plans to transfer out of Calhoun, suggested that the college should erect a monument to a significant African-American figure in the courtyard, as well as name the dining hall after Thompson.
Calhoun College was named in 1931 and opened its doors in 1933.
Correction, May 1: A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Elisia Ceballo-Countryman ’18.