Yale’s newly created Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming hosted its first public discussion Monday, focusing on how universities nationwide handle racially charged naming debates.
The renaming committee, which University President Peter Salovey announced in August of this year, was established in the wake of widespread outrage from students and faculty about the Yale administration’s April decision to keep the name of Calhoun College. Tasked with establishing principles for all future naming decisions, the committee is composed of two students, six professors and four Yale alumni and staff.
But Monday’s discussion, which occurred at noon in a classroom at the Yale Law School and featured a panel of five distinguished academics discussed naming, was not widely-attended by undergraduates, the body primarily responsible for catalyzing campus-wide conversations last year about renaming Calhoun College and abolishing the title “master” for heads of college.
History professor Beverly Gage ’94, a committee member who chaired the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Senate last year, added that it would be “silly” to focus solely on Yale students and not consider the discussions at other universities with similar naming controversies.
The five professors who attended Monday’s panel were Edward Ayers GRD ’80 of the University of Richmond, Daina Ramey Berry of the University of Texas at Austin, Tamika Brown-Nagin LAW ’97 of Harvard, Matthew Carnes of Georgetown, and Brent Henry of Princeton.
During the 90-minute discussion, the panelists parsed different aspects of the naming issue, citing their own experiences with racially charged disputes on college campuses.
Ayers, a historian who studies the American South, defended keeping historical names, but added that current issues must inform our treatment of the past.
Brown-Nagin, who served on the committee that voted to change a controversial Harvard Law School crestlast year, argued that universities should use questions of naming as an opportunity to honor influential civil rights activists.
“I very strongly favor adding new symbols, monuments, so that there can be a variety of perspectives that are represented, or a variety of conversations that are had,” Brown-Nagin said.
The poor undergraduate turnout, which some attendees attributed to the hour at which the event took place, highlighted the challenges the new committee may face as it seeks to include constituencies from across the University in naming discussions.
In interviews with the News, committee members who attended Monday’s panel discussion emphasized that the naming committee consists mostly of professors who specialize in racial issues, rather than administrators who were criticized by some undergraduates when the Calhoun decision was announced last spring. These professors also pointed out that naming issues extend beyond Yale College and said the conversation must include stakeholders outside the undergraduate community.
“We’re aware that one of the challenges we face is we’re not working on a blank slate,” said Law School professor John Witt ’94 LAW ’99 GRD ’00, chair of the renaming committee. “We’ve got to take into account the past of this conversation.”
Witt — who invited students to contact him personally with their views on the naming dispute —— added that the committee has already begun a listening tour of Yale College that will continue this week with group discussion sections in each residential college.
Still, some undergraduates who attended the panel — which was devoted primarily to the experiences of other universities that have worked through racially charged naming disputes — expressed concerns that the University is once again ignoring their opinions.
“I got here, and it’s hardly any undergraduates,” said Liam Riley ’19. “It’s really ill-advised to talk about how other universities are doing this without talking about what students here are feeling and including their voices in the conversation.”
Riley, who transferred to Yale this fall, added that the event should have been scheduled at a more convenient time and in an undergraduate-focused space. Riley emphasized that undergraduates are the group most affected by the naming decisions, since they live and work in the buildings whose names are under debate.
Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway, who serves on the naming committee, said the event took place at noon to accommodate the visiting professors’ schedules. Holloway added that undergraduates represent just one of many constituencies the University is obliged to serve.
“It’s certainly a valid point,” he said, in reference to frustration about the timing of the event. “But there are so many different constituencies. Undergraduates aren’t the only students here.”
Still, concerns over the timing and location of the event surfaced on Facebook Sunday night. In a post on the online forum Overheard at Yale, Tobias Holden ’17 noted that the naming event was poorly publicized.
Holden wrote on a Facebook page for the event that “a strong student/faculty showing will allow us to learn more about the principles the committee is weighing and to provide input.”
Heaven Berhane DIV ’18, a graduate assistant at the Afro-American Cultural Center who advises black undergraduates on health and wellness issues, told the News that many students feel exhausted after a year of continual activism.
“You get that you’re a student first, but you also have to work on behalf of a larger community,” Berhane said. “Knowing what we did last year on campus, you get tired.”
The renaming committee is scheduled to issue a report on its findings before the end of the semester.