Robbie Short

In April, after months of anticipation, University President Peter Salovey announced the names of Benjamin Franklin and Pauli Murray colleges. The announcements followed years of campus debate, with administrators seeking out input in a host of formats. While students and faculty dutifully attended open forums and submitted suggestions online, they believed their thoughts would impact the names of both colleges.

But the name of Franklin College had been decided roughly three years earlier, the News has confirmed.

In 2013, Charles Johnson ’54 — who donated $250 million toward the construction of the new colleges — asked the Corporation that one college be named after Franklin, a personal role model of his. Johnson served as chairman of Franklin Resources, a family-run mutual fund started by his father in 1947 and named after founding father Benjamin Franklin.

When he announced the naming decisions, Salovey presented Johnson’s request as one name that the Corporation considered alongside other candidates in the years leading up to the announcement. But, over the course of the summer, several sources with knowledge of the decision-making process told the News that the administration settled on Franklin around the time of Johnson’s 2013 donation.

Corporation Senior Fellow Donna Dubinsky ’77 confirmed that the commitment was made years ago.

“Between spring and fall 2013, we talked about and considered Johnson’s request, and we did say at that point that it would be our intention to honor his request,” Dubinsky said. “We didn’t formally vote until [April] 2016, but by the fall of 2013, we were communicating our intention to name a college after Franklin to Johnson. And I think the reason we didn’t just announce it at that time was we simply hadn’t named the other college.”

Yale announced Johnson’s record-breaking gift in September 2013, and Salovey, who had only recently assumed the presidency, told the News that his predecessor — former University President Richard Levin — had secured the gift before departing that spring. Salovey said honoring Franklin was not a condition of Johnson’s donation. But Salovey assumes Johnson requested that Franklin be considered during negotiations, and that Levin briefed the Corporation on those discussions.

Levin did not respond to requests for comment.

While unofficially committed to Franklin College, the Corporation did not formally vote on the name of either college until April 2016, meaning the University could have moved away from Franklin at any point. One college was named for Anna Pauline Murray LAW ’65, the first woman or person of color to be honored as the namesake of a residential college, and the other went to Franklin, whom students have faulted as a onetime slave owner with loose ties to the University. Between Johnson’s donation and that vote, conversations and protests about racism and discrimination dominated campus dialogue.

Speaking as a faculty member, Emily Greenwood — chair of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Senate — said a naming decision originally made in 2013 should have “looked very different” last spring as a result of student protests and campus debate. But the University had already committed.

“We didn’t want to undermine what we had already said to Johnson — even though the context had gotten more complicated — that our expectation was we were going to accept his request,” Salovey said.

STUMBLING INTO CONTROVERSY

Immediately following the naming announcements, many students, faculty and alumni expressed dissatisfaction and surprise both with the Franklin decision and Johnson’s apparent and previously undisclosed influence. Some informally rechristened the college after the African-American singer Aretha Franklin, while others berated Salovey at a campuswide town hall on the naming decisions.

Salovey told the News that the Corporation did not “intentionally mislead or want to mislead” the Yale community in the years following the donation. Salovey and Dubinsky attributed the delayed Franklin announcement to the fact that the Corporation wanted to announce both residential college names at once and had not yet settled on a second name.

“What I really regret is that the process of choosing a second name took much longer than we had expected,” Dubinsky said. “Salovey had so much on his plate during the presidential transition, and the other name got lost in the shuffle. Then, the complexity of the fall and Calhoun discussions delayed the decision further. But we should have finished the job, named the last college and announced both much earlier.”

The primary concern of students and faculty members interviewed was that the administration continued to seek suggestions on both names, whether through listening tours or online forums. In October 2014, for example, Salovey wrote to the Yale community in an email that with funding complete for the two new colleges, the Corporation was “seeking additional suggestions for their names.” Thousands submitted suggestions.

Then, in January 2016, community members were again invited to express their views on both names, this time through in-person listening sessions with two Corporation members.

Greenwood said she and other professors had previously had suspicions about when the University committed to Franklin College.

“The problem is that if you ask the community for names, you’re suggesting that those voices and collective deliberation will influence the names chosen,” she said.

She added that community members should only be asked to devote their energy and intellect to debates in which they will be heard.

Eli Ceballo-Countryman ’18, who helped lead student protests last year, said the University’s approach to the Franklin decision only deepens the distrust with which students view the administration. 

“Students don’t have much of a reason to trust the administration in light of recent events, and this revelation only reinforces that feeling,” Ceballo-Countryman said.

JOHNSON’S REQUEST

In addition to accusations that the University misleadingly acted as though both residential college names were open for discussion, some community members also took issue with the fact that a donor could choose a namesake.

To symbolize their belief that a residential college name had been bought, student activists threw fake money at Salovey during a town hall held just after the naming announcements.

“Our demonstration was us saying we knew we had been played and that the Franklin decision was not made by a community coming together. Now we have proof,” Ceballo-Countryman said.

In 2008, University administrators resolutely announced that neither of the two new residential colleges would be named for living donors.

“The answer is, ‘No,’” then-Senior Fellow of the Yale Corporate Roland Betts ’68 said at the time. “We’re not going to do it.”

Many assumed that commitment meant donors would not play a role in naming decisions.

Still, Professor Jay Gitlin ’71 MUS ’74 GRD ’02 — the unofficial historian of the University — said it’s “hard to resist” a donation as large as Johnson’s and that he understands why the Corporation honored Johnson’s request.

Salovey said he hopes members of the Yale community share his “deep gratitude” toward Johnson, and Dubinsky said that at the time of the donation, most Corporation members saw Johnson’s request as reasonable. Dubinsky added that she pushed for Franklin College personally.

“I was a great advocate for honoring Johnson’s request, just because I thought it was amazing that he came forward with the biggest gift in Yale history without requiring his own name,” Dubinsky said. “From my perspective, he had proposed a patriotic figure and his donation was extraordinary. We lose sight of that, but that was the nature of the Corporation’s conversation.”

Incoming Head of Franklin College Charles Bailyn ’81, who has spent the past few months studying Franklin, said he supports the namesake and will encourage others to as well.

Bailyn added that he prefers to focus on Franklin’s character rather than on the timing of the decision to honor the founding father.

“I’m not going to look back at how the name came to pass,” Bailyn said. “I’m not that concerned with it. But I am concerned with how we deal with the name and what we take from it as we move forward. I’m starting from the now and looking toward the future.”

A QUESTION OF TRANSPARENCY

Dubinsky said by revealing details behind the decision, she hopes to foster a more transparent relationship between the Corporation and the Yale community.

“I understand why people feel misled, and that’s why we’re trying to clarify that now,” Dubinsky said. “This whole discussion is the spirit of being more transparent. We want to clear the air and explain why it happened and move toward a future where we can be more respectful of communications.”

Greenwood said secretive decision-making almost always results in less well thought-out decisions, whereas the sharing of information typically leads to healthier exchanges. The Yale community should now call for more transparency and accountability, she added.

“A lesson for the entire community, especially from the perspective of the faculty, is that the [FAS] Senate needs to redouble its efforts to call for greater transparency in decision-making,” Greenwood said. “The sooner the FAS Senate can be brought into discussion on issues that impact Yale as a teaching and research university, the better.”

But others disagreed that the Corporation has a responsibility to make decisions more visibly.

Former University Secretary John Wilkinson ’60 GRD ’63 , who served in the position during the 1980s, said he takes no issue with the University waiting to announce Franklin before settling on the name of the second college. Had Franklin been announced earlier, administrators would have faced enormous pressure to name the second college hastily, Wilkinson said.

Gitlin said he thinks it is more important that administrators act with integrity than transparency. Citing his experiences as an undergraduate, Gitlin said students trusted then-University President Kingman Brewster with serious decisions.

Dubinsky said she hopes to earn the trust of Yale community members.

“I hope that by clarifying how and when the Franklin College naming decision was made, along with our regret that we did not announce it sooner, we are demonstrating to the Yale community our desire to be more transparent in the future,” she said.

Reporter David Shimer discusses the process of reporting this story.