Yale President Peter Salovey is under fire once again. Last week, news broke that the decision to name one of the new colleges after Benjamin Franklin had been made as early as 2013. It’s been a rough year for the president — a year of being bombarded with Monopoly money, panned roundly for his handling of Christakis and Calhoun issues and berated by students protected by a cloak of anonymity.
Salovey does not benefit from such a cloak. While no leader should go free of scrutiny, the fury directed towards Salovey has gone too far. The problem stems from a lack of empathy. Salovey is the face of the Yale Corporation and takes the blame (and, in equal measure, the credit) for all of the body’s executive decisions. Salovey handles this responsibility with aplomb, seldom pointing fingers or making excuses. Indeed, it was only a few days ago that we learned Salovey was not even the president who committed to Franklin College. Rather, he was honoring the private decision made by his predecessor, Richard Levin. To hold Salovey accountable for the actions of Levin is the basest form of “shooting the messenger.”
And yet, we shoot away. Only a few days ago, I was sitting in the Silliman courtyard when I overheard a girl talking to her friend: “I can’t believe a college like Yale could have a president as racist as Salovey.”
Racist? Here’s a man who’s announced a $50 million, five-year, Universitywide initiative to enhance faculty diversity. Here’s a man who has created and chaired a Task Force on Diversity Inclusion in response to student demands for a more racially inclusive Yale. Here’s a man who has overseen the christening of the first college to be named after a black alumnus. Here’s a man who put an end to the nearly century-old title of “master.”
It is important to acknowledge the efforts of the students involved in these initiatives, but it is also important to acknowledge Salovey’s dedication to converting these efforts into tangible change. Salovey is many things, but racist is not one of them. He may at times be tone-deaf — but no more tone-deaf than those who throw Monopoly money at a Jewish man.
For Salovey to not reveal the name of the college until three years after it was decided was misleading. However, this does not diminish the role he gave students in influencing the name of Pauli Murray College. It is remarkably generous of a president to essentially crowdsource names for a permanent institution like a residential college.
Perhaps we have to look outside for context to understand how donor-driven the naming of college buildings has become. Last year, NYU changed the name of the 161-year-old Polytechnic School of Engineering to the Tandon School of Engineering, in honor of a $100 million donation from Chandrika and Ranjan Tandon. Since 2000, seven of 12 buildings named at the University of Texas were in honor of donors rather than faculty members. At the University of Connecticut, a stone’s throw up the road from Yale, the Burton Family Football Complex is named after Robert Burton, a donor who never attended UConn. Sound familiar?
Passing up on a financial windfall in favor of acknowledging the concerns of the University’s student body speaks to Salovey’s care for the diversity of voice on campus.
Whether students find it fair or not, many of the most important places on campus have been and always will be largely be determined by a donor — whether that donor be Stephen Schwarzman ’69 or Charles Johnson ’54. Salovey shoulders the burden of balancing the desires of the donors, the fiscal obligations of the Yale Corporation and the moral demands of the student body. To understand his decision to delay the announcement of Franklin College is to understand and empathize with the challenge of juggling such a disparity of opinion. Having been, in some sense, set up to fail when he inherited Levin’s commitment, Salovey seemingly sought to delay the announcement until it could be tempered by a Pauli Murray-shaped triumph of the student body.
Our president is not flawless, but it’s time we give him a break. Ben Franklin College should not, and hopefully will not be, a lasting stain on his legacy.
And for the record, Jonathan Trumbull — the namesake of Trumbull College —never went to Yale either.
In fact, he graduated from a certain Harvard College.
Mrinal Kumar is a junior in Silliman College. His column usually runs on Wednesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .