Debates surrounding the name of Calhoun College are expected to continue into this academic year, as University President Peter Salovey has reopened the possibility of replacing slavery advocate John C. Calhoun, class of 1804, as the college’s namesake just months after the Yale Corporation decided to retain him.
Official administrative discussion of a potential renaming, fueled by widespread protests last fall, seemed to stall in late April when Salovey announced the Corporation’s decision to maintain the namesake of Calhoun College. However, in early August Salovey announced the creation of a “Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming” to formulate guidelines by which all future renaming decisions can be made. In his email announcement, Salovey said in hindsight that the Calhoun decision could have “drawn more effectively on campus expertise.”
Salovey said once renaming standards are established, he will “efficiently” evaluate requests from the Yale community to change certain names.
“Renaming decisions will not be made in a vacuum, but the decisions are mine,” Salovey told the News. “Once these principles are formulated, we can hold any request for the removal of a historical name up against those principles. I expect that a request will come in for John C. Calhoun. And then any outcome is possible.”
The 11-member committee will be composed of alumni, students, staff and faculty, including Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway and Stephen Pitti, director of the Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity and Transnational Migration and head of Ezra Stiles College.
Two days after Salovey announced that Calhoun would retain its name, hundreds of students confronted the president at an open town hall in Battell Chapel and held protests in front of the residential college. But the creation of the committee has been largely attributed to the reaction of faculty members, according to half a dozen administrators interviewed by the News. While the administrators told the News that they expected students to demonstrate against the Calhoun decision, none foresaw similar behavior from the faculty: In the aftermath of the Calhoun decision, a faculty open letter opposing it garnered more than 400 signatures, and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Senate submitted a letter to Salovey calling for the issue to be reconsidered.
Law School professor John Witt, who chairs the new committee, said developments both within Yale and on other college campuses helped motivate the creation of the body.
“It’s a fact, as President Salovey made clear in his communication … that the conversation over Calhoun College wasn’t quite over. That there was still a set of unanswered questions,” Witt said.
He added that beyond the debate over Calhoun College, there are hundreds of similar discussions on renaming happening across the country, including the highly publicized debate at Princeton University as to whether to rename the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. The committee, Witt said, has the potential to create general guidelines that other schools reference in their own decision-making.
Witt also said that the committee is not charged with applying principles to any particular naming controversy, but simply taking a step back to think about broad questions and ideas.
“We are doing what faculty members would hope they are good at, which is thinking about ideas and general principles,” Witt said.
Elisia Ceballo-Countryman ’18, who helped lead student protests last year, said she sees the establishment of the committee as a step forward.
“I think the fact that Yale opened this decision without thinking through the process meant that it was a disaster last year,” she said. “I’m pleased the power seems to have been redistributed in some ways to include the entire University rather than the ever-elusive Corporation.”
Calhoun College was established in 1933.