Less than six months after Yale decided to keep the name of Calhoun College, the University committee tasked with creating guidelines for all future naming decisions released its final report on Friday morning.
The 24-page report by the Committee to Establish Principles for Renaming calls on Yale administrators to consider multiple layers of historical context as they determine whether the legacies of controversial namesakes like John C. Calhoun, class of 1804, justify renaming campus buildings.
In a community-wide email on Friday morning, University President Peter Salovey announced that the Yale Corporation will decide whether to rename Calhoun in early 2017, after reviewing a recommendation from a group of three advisors — history professor John Gaddis, African American Studies professor Jacqueline Goldsby and Calhoun alumnus G. Leonard Baker ’64 — tasked with applying the principles.
“I appreciate how emotional an issue this has been for this campus, and how long we’ve been talking about it,” Salovey told the News. “Like the students of Yale College, I want to see it resolved in a thoughtful and reasonable and relatively efficient way.”
Salovey established the committee in August, after students and faculty criticized the University’s April decision to keep the Calhoun name. In a university-wide email outlining the decision, he wrote that removing the name would obscure the legacy of slavery by “substituting a false and misleading narrative.” Salovey played no role in writing the report, which the committee submitted to him on Nov. 21.
The majority of the report details the history of naming controversies at Yale, focusing closely on Calhoun’s biography and the long record of complaints about the college named in his honor.
It also places the Calhoun renaming dispute in the context of similar controversies at other institutions across the world, such as Duke University, Harvard University and Oxford University. And in its final pages, the report outlines three bolded principles — each followed by multiple sub-principles — for future renaming decisions.
First, the report states that renaming buildings should be an “exceptional event,” since university traditions preserve historical continuity and allow institutional wisdom to pass from one generation to the next.
“Holding all else equal, it is a virtue to appreciate the complexity of those lives that have given shape to the world in which we live,” the report states. “A presumption [against renaming] also helps to avoid the risk of undue debate over names, when time and energy may be better directed elsewhere.”
This presumption is strongest, the report states, when a building is named after someone who made significant contributions to the University.
But the report also argues that in some cases the University should rename buildings, and provides guidelines to help administrators make that choice.
“We expect that renaming will typically prove warranted only when more than one principle listed here points toward renaming,” the report states. “Even when more than one principle supports renaming, renaming may not be required if other principles weigh heavily in the balance.”
In the following section, the report argues that the University should establish whether a “principal legacy” of the namesake in question — one of the crucial reasons that figure is remembered, not a stray biographical footnote — is at odds with Yale’s mission statement. In its current form, the statement emphasizes the importance of an “ethical, interdependent, and diverse community.”
“A principal legacy of racism and bigotry would contradict this goal,” the report states.
It also calls on the University to consider the context of such a legacy — in particular, whether a figure’s views were controversial while he was alive, and how the University interpreted those views at the time of the original naming decision.
Next, the report argues that the specific function of the buildings in question should factor into Yale’s decision making. If a problematic name is affixed to a residential college or another building that “play[s] a substantial role in forming community at the University,” it states, administrators should scrutinize the name especially closely.
In its final section, the report states that the University has an obligation to prevent name changes from erasing or distorting history, by providing explanatory plaques, museum exhibits or some other kind of historical record. And it calls for Yale to develop a formal process for considering whether to alter a name on the basis of the other principles.
“These principles embody what I think is the central recipe for good decision making in this area, which is a really difficult combination of moral modesty and moral conviction,” said John Witt ’94 LAW ’99 GRD ’00, a law professor and the chair of the renaming committee. “We’ve got to be humble about the values we hold today, but they’re all we have to act on.”
In an interview with the News, Corporation Senior Fellow Donna Dubinsky ’77 said the Corporation would have benefitted from clear naming principles when it discussed Calhoun last year.
“I really wish we had done this kind of a process, with this kind of scholarly work when we were considering the naming decisions last year,” Dubinsky said. “We had no kind of guidelines as to how to even begin to think about the question and how to assess it.”
Beginning in August, the committee gathered once or twice a month for weekend-long meetings in which members pored over briefing books, debated the merits of particular principles and studied naming decisions at other universities.
In September and October, the committee — which consists of six faculty members, three alumni, an undergraduate, a graduate student and one staff member — held listening sessions in all 12 residential college, in addition to three meetings at the Law School. The committee also organized an event for Yale Hospitality employees in response to an October petition calling for blue-collar representation on the committee.
“For a committee that existed for around three and a half months, it was quite impressive, the work that went into it,” said Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway, who served on the committee. “It was a pretty astonishing process.”
But whether the report will ultimately lead to the renaming of Calhoun remains to be seen. Holloway and Witt declined to comment on how the principles might apply to that particular dispute.
Still, history professor Beverly Gage ’94, another committee member, told the News that the “principal legacies” guideline has clear implications for Calhoun.
“It seems clear that John C. Calhoun’s defense of slavery was one of his principal legacies,” she said.