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.


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.


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.”


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.

  • carl

    There is less to this story than meets the eye.
    Why did anyone ever assume that the very generous donor of $250 million would have no influence on the names of the buildings he is paying for?
    At any other institution, the new colleges would be named Charlie College and Johnson College, no questions asked.
    As it happened, here the Yale community was given an unusual name-a-college-free card. It was as though 13,000 people had each given $10,000 to match Mr. Johnson’s donation and his naming prerogative. Except for the fact that of course the 13,000 people had done no such thing. And here we are with Pauli Murray College–an excellent name, and one the Mr. Johnson, given his druthers, might not have thought of.
    Even so, the YDN seems to want to argue that Mr. Johnson should have had less influence over the names.
    On a campus filled with buildings named for their donors–Evans, Loria, Malone, Bass, Kline, Harkness, Sterling, the Class of 1954–the irony is very thick.
    If students persist in protesting building-naming donations, then Yale might receive fewer such donations, and be less able to build. Would that be a good outcome for Yale students?

  • disqus_f3Gqo4uR2r

    Much appreciation to the YDN for getting to the truth on this. Salovey lied to the entire Yale community. He should resign. And YDN: please keep investigating; there is more to find out about, for example, Yale-NUS and the various deals that were made in advance for those who have served there–cushy positions to which they are now returning. When were those deals made, and at what cost?

  • Boott Spur

    This is genuinely old news. Mr. Shimer could have saved himself much time and effort if he had simply looked at the faculty meeting minutes of May 5, where Salovey revealed this uncomfortable truth to the assembled professors. But I suppose it wouldn’t be a “scoop,” then.

  • Malcolm Pearson

    So the whole “naming process” of including the wider Yale community was a charade from the beginning and a rich alum who inherited a fortune gets to name a college for his dad’s company. Lucky us that his father didn’t start Domino’s Pizza.

    And Yale couldn’t turn down a gift that amounted to 1% of its endowment ? The endowment managers make that much money every six weeks. Who is the Corporation kidding ?

    • carl

      You appear to have no understanding of what an endowment actually is–thousands of separate funds, most with donor-driven, and legally enforceable, use restrictions.

      • Malcolm Pearson

        Since I sit on a private foundation board and distribution committee I have a little more understanding of endowments than you think. I would be astonished to discover that Yale’s endowment is as encumbered as you seem to think. The burden of proof is in your court. IRS regulations also require spending, in Yale’s case, over $1,000,000,000 annually from the endowment or pay an equivalent excise tax. Finally, the “naming opportunities” for everything except toilet bowls in the new colleges will raise hundreds of millions of dollars. Could the colleges have been built without Johnson naming one for his private company ? Yes.

        • carl

          Actually the IRS rule you cite–the 5 percent payout rule–applies to private foundations, not to private universities. You are assuming that a tax rule that you happen to know about in one context applies in another, different context. Classic familiarity bias.
          On page 11 of Yale’s financial report for 2014-15, you will find that Yale’s spending rule envisions a payout between 4.5 and 6 percent per year.
          On that same page you will see that only 25 percent of the Yale endowment is unrestricted. That accounts for $250 million or so in annual income.
          When you have identified $250 million of savings to be achieved in Yale’s $3.2 billion annual operating budget–a uniform trim of 8 percent across the entire university–please do let us know. The task should be easy because, over the past 10 years there have been no painful budget cuts whatsoever.

  • Ralphiec88

    So where did Pauli Murray’s name come from? While the Franklin decision was not well handled, it’s hard to claim that suggestions weren’t ‘heard’ if in fact Murray’s name came out of those suggestions.

  • jeffJ1

    I mean, as weird as this whole story may look, I hope nobody is surprised that the guy who gave nine figures to this project was given extra weight when the naming decision was made. If you want to crowdsource the name, you can crowdsource the money too, I guess.

  • habitualjoker

    This should be utterly unsurprising to anyone with some common sense. We can definitely trust the university to maintain and grow its longevity, its wealth, and its prestige. There’s no reason we should “trust” the administration to kowtow to the ephemeral demands of current students (even if they sometimes do) as Ceballo-Countryman stupidly implies.

    And, as I’ve commented before, there’s really no reason to expect that Johnson wouldn’t have a commanding say in at least one of the names. Actually, as the single largest donor in Yale’s history, he *should* have that say. Yale can either accept his gift on his terms, negotiate (as I’m sure they did), or reject it, but it’s ultimately Johnson’s decision whether or not to fund. I’ll note again that there would be no outrage if Johnson had requested – or even demanded – a name that aligned with current students’ sensibilities (personally, I would have liked Grace Hopper College).

    Really, the only thing the administration did wrong was not explain the purpose of reaching out to the community for suggestions. They were just suggestions; it was never a community vote.

    • Jarod HM

      Current students are your future alumni. An institution’s lovgevity includes having a broad base of engaged alumni. If current students with a sense of mistrust of the institution, they are much less likely to be engaged.

      The questions is not whether Johnson having role was appropriate but whether the Corporation and university leadership were acting in good faith when they engaged the community on an issue that was basically decided. It sends a bad message when you ask for feedback you are not interested in. It sends a message that the system is rigged.

      • Ralphiec88

        There were two colleges in play. What makes you say both were decided?

  • Charybdis

    We should just call it Franklin Templeton College for full transparency….

  • carl

    On rereading, I think the key issue is that, as the article says, “Many assumed [that] that commitment meant donors would not play a role in naming decisions.”
    Let’s be clear: No one who “assumed” this had any basis for doing so. No one who “assumed” this was privy in any way to the Corporation’s discussions with any donor.
    So people who “assumed” this leapt to an indefensible conclusion.
    You can’t go through life making baseless assumptions and then getting upset when those assumptions turn out to be inaccurate.
    I hope that Yalies who study logic, geometry, economics, the sciences, etc., select their assumptions more rigorously than this.

  • disqus_f3Gqo4uR2r

    Most of these comments miss the real point here: Salovey and the Yale administration lied to the entire community by making us think we played a role in naming this college. But the name was predetermined. The issue is not whether it was right or wrong to bow to the donor’s wish, but whether it is OK to lie. It is not. And, no, this is not a small issue.

    • carl

      I do not recall anyone–Salovey, Corporation, or administrator–assuring anyone that the community-input process would result in community-desired names for both colleges. My recollection is that it was always clear that the Corporation would have the final say.

      And obviously there were other stakeholders, including Mr. Johnson, whose desires the Corporation would take into account. Obviously a $250 million gift is negotiated. And obviously the University must discuss major donations privately, and cannot reveal every detail of those discussions.

      I always assumed that there was a large elephant in the room that administrators (properly) could not describe.

      The fact that there were two colleges to name always suggested a 50/50 approach. I could see this compromise coming a mile away.

      Some people–activists or even journalists–have an interest in portraying the process as misleading, and in keeping the “controversy” going. (See the first sentence of this article.)

      But in my view, anyone who made inaccurate assumptions last year, and who now genuinely feels deceived, should first assess their own sophistication, or naïveté, about how educational fundraising works.

      The fact is that Yale gave its constituents an unusual amount of input here. But the outcome (only one of two colleges named as activists wish–quelle desastre!) is being received with such bad grace that the Corporation will probably never ask for such input again.

  • Goldie ’08

    Don’t blame me. I voted for “Jerrytown”

  • fnncld

    It is now very clear that both choices were horrible. The first was dictated by a 0.01% donor in honor of someone with only the most tangential of connections to Yale. The second was someone whom less than 1% of the Yale community had ever heard of, intended to check as many diversity boxes as possible (black, female, lesbian, transgender-ish) after the choice of Franklin in hopes of placating the screaming SJWs. Ironically, the SJWs are more frenzied than ever at the choice of Franklin because he owned slaves. Yale has become in thrall to two competing and opposing forces: corporate money and identity politics. I’m a recent Yale grad, self-described liberal, who barely even recognizes the state of campus these days, and the university has lost my support.

    • carl

      Do a bit of research, and you’ll realize that the Pauli Murray name is perfect.
      How many saints have graduated from Yale?
      How many other names would have so well honored the theological history of the Pauli Murray site–which was for many decades where Berkeley Divinity School stood?
      Which other name would have expressed so well the central dilemma of human progress, which is to balance technological advances with moral improvements?
      Which other name would have been such a fitting balance to Franklin, that great scientist and politician, and founder of a nation with serious flaws?
      Pauli Murray lived to see her lost causes found. Her vision helped change America.