A decision is expected soon from Yale’s Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming. I hope that the principles they establish will result in Calhoun College being renamed. But the process of self-examination that this controversy has initiated should not stop there. We should take this opportunity to think more deeply about why we name buildings, who we name them for and how long these names should last. Yale, and other institutions with long traditions, have to grapple with the many untold and forgotten chapters of their histories. In particular, we should consider whether a periodic process of renaming would be the best way to honor Yale’s past, while acknowledging the realities of its present and the hopes we have for its future.
My suggestion is to invite the Yale community to consider periodically renaming built spaces on campus. The grounds for this proposal are rooted in a deep desire to honor many more of the illustrious Yale alumni, women and men, who have made seminal contributions to the world and impacted the wide public sphere with their intellectual, social, political and philanthropic contributions. In this spirit, I propose that each building on the Yale campus be considered for renaming once every couple of generations — that is, every 30 to 50 years. Memory of the old name could be preserved even as a new one is conferred. The names that a building has borne in the past would be inscribed on a prominent spot in the building — ensuring there is no “erasure” of history. The renaming process could, when possible, be coordinated with a physical renovation of the building, to signal a process of continuous renewal and repurposing. Such a practice would allow a larger number of people to be recognized for contributions that may not have been honored or valued in their own time. This would also send the message that Yale is not stuck in its past, but is an ever-renewing, ever-advancing vibrant institution.
This process of regular renaming constitutes a generationally responsible and inclusive gesture. By periodically changing the names of individuals that we choose to honor in the present, we ensure that future generations of Yalies also have the opportunity to recognize those whom they deem worthy in their lifetimes. The custom would stand as a powerful symbol of the trust that we place in future generations: the trust that they will be as invested in recognizing and honoring contributions of members of the community as those in Yale’s past. It would be another element of the generational handover of the ideals and traditions that Yale stands for. To clarify, in concordance with this proposal, the name of the University, Yale, would remain intact and not be open to renaming as it is not associated with a physical space. Besides, Yale is not merely a collection of buildings.
In addition to periodic renaming, another proposal to consider is the creation of a communal alumni building fund. Names of buildings constructed with this fund would be decided collectively by the donors. Such a fund would enlarge the pool of potential donors and would likely generate a new constellation of names for memorialization. Finally, there should be a pedagogic complement to these three practices: a course on Yale’s history, open to all Yale affiliates and to the larger New Haven community, should be developed and offered. Yale’s history is not fixed — it is a ever-evolving, ever-reinterpreted canvas. Our campus should be no different: It ought to reflect this continuous process of renewal and rejuvenation.
Priyamvada Natarajan is a professor in the Astronomy and Physics Departments. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .