In response to the University’s announcement that it will name one of the new residential colleges after Benjamin Franklin, some students have adopted a different Franklin to stand in as the college’s namesake: legendary soul singer Aretha Franklin.
In a campuswide email Wednesday afternoon announcing the naming decision, University President Peter Salovey acknowledged Benjamin Franklin’s accomplishments in “the arts, the sciences, government and service to society.” Salovey wrote that Franklin was also selected as the college’s namesake because he is a “personal role model” to Charles Johnson ’54, whose $250 million donation toward the new colleges’ construction was the largest gift from a single donor in the University’s history. Within hours of the announcement, dissatisfied students began advocating for others to refer to the college as Aretha Franklin College, circulating blue-and-white flyers around campus and on social media bearing an image of the singer above the words “We Deserve R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” a reference to the singer’s 1967 hit. And at a town hall to address naming issues with Salovey on Thursday afternoon, dozens of students donned T-shirts and stickers bearing Aretha Franklin’s image. Aretha Franklin received an honorary degree from the University in 2010, as did Benjamin Franklin in 1753.
“I think that Benjamin Franklin is an empty signifier,” J. Ery Diaz ’16 said. “It doesn’t really symbolize what Yale says it does, and in that sense, Aretha Franklin is a much more powerful figure.”
The concept of Aretha Franklin College originated on the popular Facebook group “Overheard at Yale” shortly after Salovey’s announcement, said Yale Women’s Center Political Action Coordinator Rita Wang ’19. She added that the duality of the names, as well as the fact that both Franklins received honorary degrees, made for a strong connection. Wang also noted the significance of Aretha Franklin being a woman of color. Benjamin Franklin, as noted in Salovey’s email, was both a slave owner and an abolitionist in his lifetime.
The Women’s Center student board met Wednesday night after the announcement to discuss the “emotional climate” on campus and decided to fully promote Aretha Franklin College through flyers and social media, Wang said. The Center coordinated with other groups on campus, including the Afro-American Cultural Center, to create the campaign.
“We wanted to take power out of the Corporation’s hands by redefining what the name of the new college meant to us,” Women’s Center Head Coordinator Cassie Lignelli ’18 said. “The activist and larger Yale community pulled together in solidarity to generate a big response.”
Student support for the movement was evident through a statement published by the Women’s Center on Facebook late Wednesday night. As of Thursday evening, the statement had been signed by 45 different student groups or publications and garnered 513 likes.
“As students, we choose to honor Aretha Franklin,” the statement read. “She is an extraordinary musician, often called ‘the voice of the Civil Rights Movement,’ and was a recipient of an honorary degree from Yale in 2010. President Obama once said, ‘American history wells up when Aretha sings.’ Like Aretha, we’re just asking for the respect we deserve.”
The Women’s Center collaborated with Dwight Hall to quickly produce posters, stickers and over 200 T-shirts featuring the graphic of Aretha Franklin singing into a microphone above the reference to one of the singer’s most famous songs. The posters were hung in the early hours of Thursday morning, while the rest of the materials were produced in time for the town hall that occurred in Battell Chapel that afternoon. Neither the Women’s Center nor Dwight Hall would disclose how much money was put into the projects.
In addition to financial assistance, Dwight Hall loaned its cars to get Women’s Center members to a printing facility in time to distribute the stickers and T-shirts at the town hall, said Dwight Hall Co-Coordinator Briana Burroughs ’17.
“I think that this is the way that images and symbols work: they spread,” Diaz said. “What makes this so effective is that while Yale students don’t have $250 million, they do have the intellectual toolbox to create images that resonate with people.”
While the push to print Aretha Franklin-themed materials was primarily motivated by Thursday’s town hall, Burroughs said the student activist community will continue to mobilize. The movement is likely to have some longevity, said Diaz, because the “cultural exchange of symbols” has now intertwined Aretha Franklin with the new college’s identity.
“Yes, the Yale Corporation can decide to name colleges, but at the same time, names are only important if we decide to legitimize them,” Wang said. “We as students have decided not to legitimize Benjamin Franklin College, and we will recognize it as Aretha Franklin College.”
Aretha Franklin was the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Correction, April 29: A previous version of this article misspelled the name of J. Ery Diaz ’16.