As a shower of fake $1 million bills rained down upon him, University President Peter Salovey found himself confronted with questions about race, money and historical memory on Thursday.
The bills were thrown by dozens of students in the balcony of Battell Chapel who were angry about the recently announced decision to retain the name of Calhoun College and to name one of the two new residential colleges after Benjamin Franklin. Salovey — who stood ashen-faced as students passionately questioned him, sometimes shouting to make their voices heard — hosted the town hall to hear student reactions to the controversial decisions. Hundreds of students attended the event, and student activists formed a particularly prominent block at the front of the chapel; many wore duct tape over their mouths and custom T-shirts protesting the decisions.
Among other complaints, students — many of whom cried as they spoke — said the decisions showed that the University has prioritized the wishes of billionaire donors over the well-being of students.
“We spent the entire year discussing this with you, and you turned around and did nothing,” said Yonas Takele ’17, a student in Calhoun who left the chapel in disgust soon after. “You had an opportunity to stand and do the right thing. It’s on you and I want you to know that. I have no respect for you.”
In Salovey’s opening remarks, he acknowledged that the naming announcements have generated a mixed reaction. But he staunchly defended the Corporation’s decisions. He described Yale’s status as an educational institution as the guiding principle for all three decisions, which he said were made independently of each other. The decision to retain Calhoun’s name, in particular, he said, was made because Yale has a responsibility to remember the legacy of slavery and use the symbol to “imagine and struggle for a different kind of future.”
But the dozens of students who spoke at the event passionately rejected his line of argument, contending that the educational value of Calhoun’s legacy does not excuse the emotional distress the college name has provoked among students of color.
“I want to dispel the notion that erasing Calhoun’s name would erase Yale’s history,” one student said.
“Are you saying that the pain of our classmates is an educational experience?” another student asked.
The discussion also dealt with the naming of Benjamin Franklin College, a decision that students called a “sell-out” designed to appease Charles B. Johnson ’54, who donated $250 million — the single largest gift Yale has ever received — toward the construction of the new colleges. At the first mention of the college’s name, students sitting in the front row turned their backs on Salovey and held monopoly boards aloft as the fake $1 million bills floated down from the balcony for the second time.
Salovey explained that Johnson had asked the Corporation to “consider” Franklin in its naming decision but did not make it a condition of the donation. But Salovey also defended donors in general, saying that their generosity funds more than half of students’ educations.
“That’s part of what it means to be a university,” Salovey said.
Salovey’s defense of Benjamin Franklin College was greeted with laughter from the assembled students, who jeered when Salovey explained that “although he owned slaves,” Franklin eventually expressed support for abolition.
The discussion soon turned into a referendum on the University’s failure to engage with issues of race and racial history in the classroom.
Multiple students recommended a distributional requirement for ethnic studies — a demand activists pushed for in the fall — as a more appropriate way to educate students about history. One student lambasted the lack of faculty diversity, which Salovey later called “the single biggest problem” at the University.
“Yale does not currently have the resources to teach this painful history. We are hemorrhaging qualified, caring faculty of color,” Julianna Simms ’18 said from the balcony. “If you are sincere about this — and I’m not sure you are — you need to make these structural changes that will allow this conversation to happen in a healthy way and in a way that isn’t taxing on the mental and physical well-being of students of color on this campus.”
Simms added that the administration should increase support for departments that already engage in these areas and grant departmental status to the Ethnicity, Race and Migration Program.
Salovey said the stagnant number of African-American and Hispanic faculty represents his biggest disappointment in the University.
“That is certainly upsetting to me,” he said. “You are a very diverse group of people. Your faculty are not.”
Still, the overarching theme of the event was frustration and exhaustion on the part of student activists, who questioned the point of speaking out when administrators have repeatedly ignored their stories and calls for change.
Students described the emotional toll the fall protests and subsequent conversations with administrators and Yale Corporation members have taken on them, saying they feel hounded by an unsympathetic mainstream media and abandoned by campus officials.
“We want you to give us an accountability plan for how Yale is going to address the fact that the media in the rest of the world is going to be laughing at black students for whining because we got one college,” Rianna Johnson-Levy ’17 said. “We are not being coddled.”
Salovey was quick to agree.
“I reject the way you, Yale students, are treated in a lot of the mainstream media,” Salovey responded. “I will fight always against this idea that somehow students of today are unappreciative or whiny or being coddled.”
History professor David Blight told the News after the event that the Corporation’s defense of the Calhoun decision as a necessary educational tool is “absolute nonsense,” because the University already supports initiatives to teach and write about slavery, including the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition, which Blight directs.
Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway, who sat before the crowd but remained conspicuously silent throughout the event, said he understands students’ frustration at the nature of the decisions and the awkward timing of the announcement right before the end of the year.
“What is frustrating to me is that the things students were articulating today, they had articulated in November. They believed that they weren’t being listened to, and based on what the announcement looks like, I get where they are coming from,” Holloway said. “I completely recognize the confusion and frustration in the moment and understand how [the timing of the decision] makes it very complicated for people.”
He added that it was essential for Salovey to fulfill his role as president and explain the decisions to students.
“Given that this is where we are, I don’t know if there is an elegant answer beyond the fact that it will be hard,” Holloway said.