Days after the University announced that statesman and slavery advocate John C. Calhoun would remain the namesake of of Calhoun College, professors in the Linguistics Department took an unexpected step: naming a gender-inclusive restroom after the much-maligned alumnus.
The Calhoun gender-inclusive restroom was one of several rooms renamed in Dow Hall as the department’s symbolic celebration of diversity. In light of many students’ and faculty members’ outrage at the Yale Corporation’s decision to retain Calhoun College’s name — despite persistent calls to change the name because of John C. Calhoun’s ardent support of slavery — the linguistics department has unveiled the Yale Linguistics Diversity Initiative to “recognize the contributions of people of diverse backgrounds” to the field of linguistics, as well as to the department and the University as a whole. The initiative recognizes six individuals — Fidelia Fielding, Mary Haas, Kay Williamson, LiFang-Kuei, E. Adelaide Hahn and Grace Hopper — by renaming six rooms in the department’s facility.
An earlier version of the initiative published on the department’s website heavily criticized the University’s decision and also renamed a gender-inclusive restroom after Calhoun. However, these two specifics were removed from a newer version of the initiative currently on the website. Department Chair Robert Frank said the initial posting of the initiative was done by a subset of the department’s faculty and students. He said he decided to remove the statements regarding the recent naming controversy, as the department has not taken a stance on the matter. Frank also removed the statement about the Calhoun bathroom, and it is unclear whether the department will move ahead with that particular initiative.
“This decision [to retain Calhoun College’s name] shows striking insensitivity and imperious disregard for community opinion, particularly in the wake of recent incidents exposing the University’s struggle to move into the twenty-first century,” members of the department wrote in the initial version of the initiative. Frank, who removed this particular sentence, said that taking a stance on the naming controversy is separable from the initiative of renaming rooms, even if the controversy contributed to the effort’s timeliness.
Besides the initial critique of the University’s decision, members of the department focused the initiative largely on the celebration of diversity. The initiative has renamed rooms after Fidelia Fielding, a native American woman who was the last speaker and preserver of the Mohegan Pequot language and one of only three American Indians to have been inducted into the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame; Mary Haas GRD ’35, whose 1964 Thai-English dictionary has remained an authoritative text for five decades; and Kay Williamson GRD ’64, who has been called “The Mother of Nigerian Linguistics.” The initiative similarly celebrates the contributions of LiFang-Kuei, one of the first Chinese people to study linguistics outside China and a former instructor at Yale, and E. Adelaide Hahn, who was the first woman to serve as president of the Linguistic Society of America.
Groundbreaking female computer scientist Grace Hopper GRD ‘34, whose name was a popular suggestion for the naming of the two new residential colleges, is now the namesake of the linguistics Director of Graduate Studies Office.
Professors interviewed said the initiative came out of a long-standing discussion in the department about the symbolic representation of diversity, but that the renaming of the rooms was inspired by the recent naming controversies.
Department Chair Robert Frank said the display of photographs in the department’s seminar room, which consisted almost entirely of white men, was the original impetus of the discussion.
Linguistics professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies Raffaella Zanuttini said that while the depictions of white men in the seminar room is a rather accurate reflection of the past, it does not reflect the present situation in the department, where three of the five tenured professors are women.
“We have a diverse group of undergraduate and graduate students,” Zanuttini said. “So, we have been thinking about how to improve our collection of pictures so that they do not convey the sense that Linguistics is a field for white men only.”
Following the naming decisions, linguistics DGS Claire Bowern initiated another conversation with some graduate students, which led to the idea of renaming departmental rooms.
Bowern said the initiative does not merely highlight diversity, but rather rectify a previously skewed representation of the field.
“I want to emphasize that while the new honorands in our department add to the diversity of those represented on our walls, they are not there simply ‘to increase diversity,’” Bowern said. “While our department — like many departments — has in its history been dominated by a particular demographic, I would argue that the addition of the new crop of honorands provides a more accurate picture of the importance that Yale linguistics has had in the field, particularly in documenting the world’s linguistic diversity.”