As students danced in celebration over the renaming of Calhoun College on Saturday, the college’s alumni community reacted with a wide range of emotions — from delight, to nostalgia, to outright fury.
In interviews with the News, alumni from Calhoun, which will formally be renamed in honor of pioneering computer scientist Grace Hopper GRD ’34 on July 1, shared memories of their time in the residential college and reflected on the politically charged debate that has ebbed and flowed over the last four decades.
For Adam Handler ’81, who recalled fond memories of eating with friends in the college dining hall and playing pool in the basement, Yale’s initial decision during the Great Depression to name a college after class of 1804 alumnus, statesman and slavery advocate John C. Calhoun was “incredibly insensitive.”
“It was a horrible decision that the University made in the 1930s, back when you couldn’t argue that there was any pro-slavery argument left in the world,” Handler said. “I’m happy that the University finally realized that and decided to change the name.”
And in the eyes of Rabbi David Bauer ’81, another alumnus of the college, any nostalgia surrounding the Calhoun name was outweighed by its racially charged history.
“I have sentimental connection to the sound of the word ‘Calhoun,’ the term ‘Hounie,’” Bauer said. “But in terms of what Yale represents and what I want Yale to represent, I’m proud that at my next reunion I’ll be in the Hopper College courtyard.”
But not all alumni were as enthusiastic about the name change. On Twitter and Facebook, some alumni expressed concern that the renaming decision could lead to a “slippery slope” that would imperil other names on campus, including the name of Yale itself.
And in an interview with the News, Joe Staley Jr. ’59 said his graduating class has been discussing the naming debate over email, and that many alumni he knows are upset by the decision, including one who is considering withholding a multi-million dollar donation.
“Realize that Calhoun was elected by vote of the nation individually, and not as part of a joint ticket with the presidential candidate. He represented the consensus of the nation at the time of his election, as does Donald Trump,” Staley said. “We now excoriate them for entertaining ideas abhorrent to the present minority, yet [they are] representative of the voting majorities extant.”
Though the change from Calhoun to Hopper will officially apply to all current juniors, sophomores and freshmen, alumni will have the option to remain associated with Calhoun by retaining the name on official University databases and badges at reunion events.
In an interview with the News, University President Peter Salovey promised “a whole range of opportunities for alumni to engage with us” about the renaming decision, including telephone conference calls and personal meetings with Yale officials.
But for Staley, the decision to replace Calhoun with Hopper signals that Yale gives greater weight to the opinion of the current student body than the sentiments of its alumni.
“Yale is not looking at its alums,” he said. “It is looking at its current students, and I think the alums probably have a greatly different opinion [on the name of Calhoun College].”
Still, a Calhoun alumnus, G. Leonard Baker ’64, served on the three-person task force that unanimously recommended a name change to the Yale Corporation, as well as the larger committee charged last August with establishing broad guidelines for all renaming decisions.
Peter Scranton ’77 said he has not decided whether to change his official affiliation from Calhoun to Hopper, mostly because he does not especially care what name appears on his reunion badge.
“There are a lot of other things that I’m focused on in my life, and that’s not front and center,” he said.
But as an undergraduate in Calhoun in the 1970s, the name made Scranton uncomfortable, he said, although his most significant memories of those years are not tied to the legacy of the college’s infamous namesake.
“When I think of Calhoun, I don’t think of John C. Calhoun, I think of the people who I learned from, the experiences I had there and the intellectual learning and growing that I did,” Scranton said. “There’s a sense of loss in that way, but institutions change all the time.”
Several alumni interviewed by the News said they know little about Hopper, aside from a clip of her 1986 appearance on Late Night with David Letterman that has been recently shared on social media as an example of her deadpan wit.
Calhoun alumnus Jeff Knapp ’78 said she embodies Yale’s values and her achievements make her a valuable role model for women in the sciences or public service.
For his part, Bauer applauded the choice of Hopper, citing her impact on the field of computer science and her trailblazing status as a woman working in arenas traditionally dominated by men. He added that he will be “proud to say [he] is one of the generations of Hopper College,” although he has not yet thought about what it would mean to formally change his residential college affiliation.
Over the past year and a half, Yale has repeatedly solicited advice from alumni, as well as current students and faculty, on the potential renaming of Calhoun.
However, Bauer said the Corporation’s initial decision last April to keep the name of Calhoun — despite months of student-led protests — was an error that could have been avoided.
“It is a little disappointing that it took them this long to come to it,” Bauer said. “This is a decision they could have come to faster and sooner — but they came to it.”