The announcement that Calhoun College will retain its controversial namesake has drawn a strong response from campus activists who last week protested the decision at a town hall meeting in Battell Chapel hosted by University President Peter Salovey.
But not the whole campus is in uproar. A News survey administered the week before the April 27 announcement found that 45 percent of students support keeping the name. And in interviews over the last week, students and faculty invested in the debate said the protests have had a chilling effect on free speech on campus. Twenty students who said they support the decision declined to comment for this article out of fear that they would face backlash from their peers.
“The reason is that people fear the intense, vicious, personal attacks that seem to come from sincere disagreements in philosophy,” said Kevin Olteanu ’19, who belongs to the William F. Buckley Program, a conservative group that works to promote intellectual diversity on campus. “They are afraid of getting yelled at, losing friends, and jeopardizing their futures by making their opinions known.”
And according to News columnist Cole Aronson ’18, who is in Calhoun, the Battell town hall — where one protester told Salovey, “I have no respect for you” — has left students afraid that voicing their opinions might provoke ad hominem attacks from activists.
“It doesn’t surprise me that students who support keeping the name don’t want to speak up,” Aronson said. “They don’t want that sort of behavior directed their way.”
Aronson added that many of the students protesting the decision view the naming dispute as a litmus test of basic decency, a position that precludes reasoned debate.
Another student, who asked to remain anonymous, spoke of similar concerns.
“I only talk to people who I’m close with about this kind of stuff because in the mainstream it kind of becomes a one-sided, intimidating dialogue,” the student said. “I know standing behind what you say is the right thing to do, but that only works if people who disagree are willing to engage in rational discourse.”
The protests in the days after the announcement produced visually striking moments that gained traction in the news and on social media — lines of protesters solemnly exiting Battell, students gathering on Cross Campus to ceremonially rename Calhoun. But according to the News survey — which received responses from around 1,700 students, more than a third of the total undergraduate population — the campus is far from united: Nearly half the respondents, including more than a third of black students, said they support keeping the name.
“It is upsetting that a few loud voices can bully such prestigious universities into changing their lasting traditions,” one respondent wrote before the decision to keep the name was announced.
Austin Strayhorn ’19, a member of the Black Men’s Union who is in Calhoun and supports a name change, told the News that students have no obligation to be civil as they discuss the naming issue, because the dispute ultimately boils down to to an undebatable question of right versus wrong.
“There is no conversation that needs to be had,” he said. “Students have not been listened to when they’ve been respectful, so now they’re going to make some noise. If it makes people uncomfortable, if it makes other people feel like they can’t engage in a civil conversation on it, then so be it. We’ve been civil and it hasn’t worked.”
Alex Zhang ’18, a Calhoun student who also supports changing the name, said students in favor of keeping it should not expect to face ad hominem attacks, especially if their arguments are thoughtful and empathetic.
Zhang added that the meeting at Battell was not indicative of how students debate the issue among themselves.
“Speaking out against one of the decision-makers is fundamentally different from talking with a student you disagree with,” he said.
Head of Calhoun College Julia Adams and Calhoun Dean April Ruiz ’05 said they are working to accommodate students on both sides of the dispute as they manage the aftermath of the naming decision.
Although students in the college remain divided, Ruiz said, they are generally receptive to opposing points of view. She added that she has declined to take a public position on the issue in order to retain the trust of students in both camps.
Adams — who last semester called for the college to be renamed Calhoun-Douglass, after 19th-century abolitionist Frederick Douglass — announced plans earlier this week to set up an online discussion forum for Calhoun students and alumni to continue debating the naming issue. In an interview with the News, Adams said she hopes the site will foster even-handed discussion.
“I trust that faculty members, including heads of college, will do their utmost to enable all students to speak their minds so as to sort out their arguments and learn from others,” Adams said. “We all — faculty and students alike — need to foster an environment in which no one is afraid to express views or feelings.”
It is not the first time this year that campus protests have raised free speech concerns. In late October, an email from Associate Head of Silliman College Erika Christakis defending culturally appropriative Halloween costumes triggered weeks of protests. After students called for Christakis and her husband, Head of Silliman College Nicholas Christakis, to be fired, conservative media pundits accused the protesters of stifling free speech.
Physics professor Douglas Stone, whose Nov. 30 open letter supporting the Christakises received dozens of faculty signatures, told the News last fall that some colleagues warned him that the initiative could make him a target of the protests.
Stone, who would not take a side on the naming debate, said earlier this week that similar fears might be taking hold in the wake of the Calhoun verdict.
“The climate has to change,” he said. “We should have debate.”
The Calhoun decision was announced last week alongside verdicts on the fate of the title of residential college master and the names of the two new residential colleges.