In April, when the University announced its decision to name a residential college after Benjamin Franklin, hundreds of students protested a namesake with a slaveholding record and loose ties to Yale.
Charles Johnson ’54 — who in 2013 donated $250 million toward the new colleges and asked that one be named after Franklin — recognized the importance of student activism but described these objections as short-lived “juvenile rebellion.”
Johnson said in a recent interview that he appreciates the value of student protests and is “so happy” that hundreds of additional students will soon receive a Yale College education. But Johnson emphasized that he is a “great admirer” of Franklin, one of the most important figures in American history.
“The backlash doesn’t bother me, frankly,” Johnson said. “When I was at Yale, we had demonstrations. That’s fine, people express themselves, but I just think this is the right thing. I’m confident of that, and I’m sorry that some people don’t see it that way. But I think most do and a minority doesn’t. Maybe as they mature, they will understand. But this is a juvenile rebellion. It’s a learning process. When you’re 18 or 19 you have a different viewpoint on things than when you’ve been out earning a living and growing up.”
Johnson said his impression is that the group of students who oppose Franklin are a small but vocal minority, adding that they are “entitled to their opinion.” Johnson said that while he has made many anonymous gifts in the past, part of the American philanthropic tradition is for major donors to be recognized for their contributions.
Johnson also said that he supports retaining the namesake of Calhoun College, as he does not favor “erasing history.” Calhoun played a prominent role in American history, including as vice president, he said.
Sebastian Medina-Tayac ’16, who was a part of Next Yale, said Johnson’s views are predictable but disappointing.
“It’s not surprising — I wouldn’t expect him to fully value the perspective of student activists,” Medina-Tayac said. “Many will be pleased with his comments. Many will be outraged. But honestly, he donated $250 million of ill-gotten gains and named it after Benjamin Franklin, who never went to Yale. That’s pretty juvenile.”
Administrators and alumni interviewed said that Yale graduates are as divided as the student body on these issues, though older alumni are more likely to agree with Johnson’s views.
University President Peter Salovey said he has heard “every possible point of view” from alumni about debates on campus. Salovey emphasized that Johnson has an unmatched record of supporting students, most obviously by ensuring that thousands more will receive a Yale education in the years to come.
“Johnson was moved by the opportunity to expand the college and add 200 additional students to each graduating class,” Salovey said. “He loves Yale, and loves Yale students, and that is what motivated this unprecedented generosity. Yale’s alumni are so generous to this place, in general, and it is important to remember that they love Yale and supporting students to have the education and experiences they did during their time here.”
While several faculty members interviewed questioned whether Johnson’s views on Calhoun might have pushed the Corporation to retain the controversial namesake, Salovey said that is “simply not true” and that no individual’s opinion was “weighed more heavily” than another’s in the Calhoun decision.
Peter Tracey ’86, a lawyer in Washington, D.C., said naming issues like Calhoun — while important and worthwhile — were not on “anyone’s radar” during his time at Yale.
“These are serious and important issues,” Tracey said. “But there is something to be said in calling [protests] youthful exuberance. I’m not sure that throwing money at the president is necessary. It makes a statement, yes, and in a way is clever, but I’m not sure it’s the most respectful way to handle it.”
Weili Cheng ’77, executive director of the Association of Yale Alumni, said it is impossible to generalize the opinions of Yale alumni. Over the past year, she said she has spoken to many 1950s graduates who agree with Johnson and many who disagree.
Still, Cheng said she was pleased to hear that Johnson appreciates the importance of student expression.
“I am glad that he understands the value of student voices and perspective, that they are trying to make the University a better place,” Cheng said. “And I would say that I agree people over time based on their life experiences sometimes do change politically.”