To the incoming class of the College Formerly Known as Calhoun:
Just as I did 13 years ago, you have joined the residential college at the corner of Elm and College streets. I write to ask you, beginning with your first weeks in your new community, to take action. Over the coming weeks on campus, you will be told repeatedly that you are a member of Calhoun College. I ask that you refuse to let the University hoist this name upon you.
I ask that you draw upon the anger and frustration that Yale dining hall employee Corey Menafee expressed this summer. Menafee temporarily lost his job at Yale for smashing a stained-glass window in our college that depicted slaves carrying bales of cotton. The image was “racist” and “degrading,” Menafee told the New Haven Independent. “It’s 2016, I shouldn’t have to come to work and see things like that.” To be sure, I do not ask that you destroy or deface any property. But I ask that, like Menafee, you resist becoming complicit in John C. Calhoun’s persisting presence on our campus.
Like most of you, I did not ask to be assigned to Calhoun College. I arrived at Bingham Hall in the fall of 2003, and the Calhoun upperclassmen welcomed my class with open arms. We were told that we were members of a small but proud community — indisputably the best residential college at Yale. We were showered with shirts, lanyards and other paraphernalia, all emblazoned with the Calhoun name. We were encouraged to commit to heart Calhoun songs and chants, and we were taught about Calhoun traditions that we needed to carry forward.
Early on, at least, some members of our class greeted our assigned college with concern. Members of our class — familiar with John C. Calhoun’s role in U.S. history — expressed uneasiness with our college’s namesake. Soon enough, however, those conversations about our namesake dissipated, giving way to discussions about classes, extracurricular activities, friendships and romance. We came to accept — or perhaps, we were led to believe — that the Calhoun name was something that could not be changed.
Your class need not share the same fate. The Calhoun name can be changed, and it should be. Refuse to be complicit. Refuse to wear the shirts with Calhoun’s name that you are given. Refuse to repeat the Calhoun chants you are taught. And, most importantly, refuse to identify yourself as a member of Calhoun College. Do not waste your breath uttering a name as despicable as John C. Calhoun.
In early August, after Menafee’s resignation prompted nationwide outrage, President Peter Salovey announced the creation of a “Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming,” suggesting that the University may reverse its Calhoun decision. But do not let these gestures tempt you into complacence. You must hold the University accountable until our college is renamed.
By no means should my request hinder you from embracing the people that make up your college and the experiences you have in it. Like many others, I developed wonderful friendships in our college, many that last to this day. I keep fond memories of the people I met in our college, the experiences I had there and even the building itself. But you can appreciate everything and everyone that makes our college special while challenging the legitimacy of its name.
Your class may find it helpful to rally around an interim name, to be used until our college receives a more proper and permanent renaming. I imagine your class will have plenty of ideas, but in the interest of expediency, may I suggest something innocuous as a placeholder, a name that pays tribute to no individual in particular, slaveholder or otherwise. Perhaps, for now, “Elm College” — a reference to our building’s location in the Elm City and to the mighty elm tree that once stood in the center of our college’s courtyard — would serve your class well.
Your class is unique — it is the first to arrive after the University’s decision about our college’s name, after Menafee’s resignation from Yale and after the creation of Salovey’s “renaming committee.” Many of us who came before you grudgingly came to accept our college’s name, although many of us have since disavowed it. Your class, from the very start of your time on campus, can refuse to be a part of this project. Embrace the opportunity your class has, and help us find a new identity — a new name — more fitting for a college as special as ours.
Christopher Lapinig is a 2007 graduate of Yale College and a 2013 graduate of Yale Law School. He is a former editor for the Yale Daily News Magazine. Contact him at