With the release of the report by the Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming, it seems clear that the days of Calhoun College are numbered. There is, I admit, an overwhelming need to move past this issue once and for all. Still, I believe it is worthwhile to revisit this debate in the context of the recent election. I am a graduate of Yale College, a Ph.D. student writing a dissertation on institutional memory at American universities, and was a research assistant for the Committee. I have spent the better part of a decade thinking about naming and memory at institutions of higher learning. While now more than ever might seem like the moment to repudiate bigotry through an act of renaming, I believe the continued presence of Calhoun College would serve as a powerful and timely call to humility.
The rhetoric of the movement to rename Calhoun College has closely mirrored that of the outrage which swept over Yale in the aftermath of Nov. 8. This is not us. We are better than this. We must take action to fight intolerance in all its forms. It is comforting and empowering to know that I belong to an institution positioning itself to occupy the front lines of the impending assault on our most essential values. We do ourselves no favors, however, by fulfilling, through our post-election keening, the stereotype of Yale as an echo chamber of liberalism completely out of touch with the rest of the country.
Meanwhile initial shock turns to growing horror as we watch the press coverage of Trump Tower. The parade of supplicants that has swept through the lobby gives us a glimpse at the Cabinet Donald Trump is assembling. Among them are Yale graduates, notably Ben Carson ’73, who will serve as secretary of housing and urban development; Steven Mnuchin ’85, who will serve as secretary of the treasury; Wilbur Ross Jr. ’59, who will serve as secretary of commerce; and Stephen Schwarzman ’69, who will chair the president’s economic advisory panel. At first I found myself repulsed that I should have anything in common with these would-be quislings. But I quickly remembered that the body of Yale graduates is in fact enormous and unlikely to be in lockstep with my personal political views.
As fate would have it, Schwarzman’s appointment was announced the same day the Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming released its findings. Schwarzman has in fact made a hobby of renaming buildings in honor of himself: his large donation to the New York Public Library transformed the main branch into the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building in 2008 and just last year he bought the naming rights to Commons, now the Schwarzman Center. While the principles enumerated in the report will almost certainly provide the pretext for the renaming of Calhoun, one surmises there will be no official discussion of applying them to the Schwarzman Center. The name will remain a source of embarrassment to the university for generations to come.
Its presence on our campus, however, will be instructive. What underlies Yale’s highly publicized disgust with Donald Trump is the conviction that we as an institution are better than — and ultimately separate from — him. Carson, Mnuchin, Ross and Schwarzman should remind us that this is not true. Rest assured, many Yale graduates will find work in the Trump administration. If a university can make a claim to the achievements of its alumni, whatever harm Carson, Mnuchin, Ross and Schwarzman wreak on the country is as much Yale’s legacy as the good that might have come to pass under Hillary Clinton LAW ’73. Had she won the election, it would be easy to imagine a future in which Yale dedicates a Clinton College. It may yet do so. Meanwhile, we would do well to remember that Yale has never been — nor will it ever be — the unqualified force for good we like to pretend it is. Yale will be as complicit in Donald Trump’s administration as it has been in the darkest chapters of our national history. A college named for John C. Calhoun, class of 1804, would be a forceful reminder of just that.
MAX WALDEN ’11 GRD ’18 is a Ph.D. student in the History Department. Contact him at email@example.com .