Four months ago, in the midst of widespread backlash to the decision to retain the namesake of Calhoun College, University President Peter Salovey formed a Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming. On Friday, the committee released its report, positioning the University to decide on Calhoun by early 2017 and providing a framework for all future renaming debates.
The 24-page report 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. Salovey established the committee after students and faculty members criticized the University’s April decision to keep the Calhoun name. Salovey played no role in writing the report, which the committee submitted to him on Nov. 21.
In a communitywide email, Salovey announced that the Yale Corporation will decide whether to rename Calhoun next semester, after reviewing a recommendation from a group of three advisors — history professor John Gaddis, African American studies professor Jacqueline Goldsby GRD ’98 and Calhoun alumnus G. Leonard Baker ’64 — tasked with applying the principles.
John Witt ’94 LAW ’99 GRD ’00, a Yale Law School professor and the chair of the committee, said that the principles are not “a renaming algorithm, where if you put a name in on one end you’d get a result at the other.” Instead, the report highlights the types of factors that decision-makers should take into account, he added.
“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,” Witt said. “We’ve got to be humble about the values we hold today, but they’re all we have to act on.”
The majority of the report details the history of naming controversies at Yale, focusing on Calhoun’s legacy and the long-standing debate surrounding 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 Harvard University and Oxford University. And in its final pages, the report outlines key principles for future renaming decisions.
First, the report states that renaming buildings should be an “exceptional event,” since historical continuity allows 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 continues, when a building is named after someone who made significant contributions to the University.
But in cases where the University should rename buildings, the report provides guidelines for administrators and makes clear that no single violation of a principle — or even of multiple principles — necessarily warrants a renaming.
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 — conflicts with Yale’s mission statement, which 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 the 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 buildings that play a “substantial role” in forming community at the University — including residential colleges — should be scrutinized 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.
In an interview with the News, Corporation Senior Fellow Donna Dubinsky ’77 said that trustees would have benefitted from established naming principles while discussing 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,” 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 reviewed 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 colleges, in addition to three meetings at Yale 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.”