Most of the students reading this column know me only as the dean of Yale College. It’s an exciting and challenging job, and it’s been an honor to serve you in this capacity. However, prior to moving into this role, I was the master of Calhoun College from 2005 through 2014 (with a 2011–12 sabbatical interrupting that run). Those were the most meaningful years of service in my almost 20 years at Yale.
When former University President Rick Levin invited me to the position, he gave me a week to decide. Without much hesitation, my wife and I agreed to join the Calhoun community. Her reasoning carried the day: We would raise our family — our daughter was then 5, our son 2 — with some of the most interesting and inspirational young people in the world. What neither of us anticipated, though, is that this new community of students, dining hall and custodial workers, and Calhoun administrators would play such a powerful role in mentoring our children and in shaping our own worldview. We forged powerful and abiding relationships with hundreds of ’Hounies, and we know that our friendships will abide for the rest of our lives.
This is what happens when you invest yourself emotionally in helping a small community realize its potential. While I would like to think that my time in Calhoun was unique and that my influence on the community was without compare, I know that my experience could be retold by anyone who has had the honor of leading a residential college at Yale.
Having said that, Calhoun really isn’t like every other college at Yale, given the legacy of the college’s namesake and the tensions between how we remember the past and how we honor our institution’s core values.
I will not rehearse the debates that have existed as long as the building at Elm and College streets bore Calhoun’s name. Those debates reached their loudest volume last academic year and had a profound effect on how we articulate who we are in this larger Yale community and what our values happen to be. I also will not linger over the Corporation’s decision to rename Calhoun. University President Peter Salovey eloquently detailed the rationale behind the decision and pointed to the work of the Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming and the task force that subsequently applied the new principles to the name of Calhoun College.
I think it is important to consider that we are living in an era when nuance has lost so much value and when withering excoriations play better in a universe of likes and retweets. These changes mark a tremendous challenge to our notions of community — as a nation, as a region and as a university based in residential education. As you may imagine, my email inbox is now home to angry messages from people who think that Yale’s decision to rename Calhoun effaces history and is another example of political correctness run amok. (There are also many positive messages about this change — many more than the negative.)
To all of those who have sent frustrated messages, I ask you first to read the president’s statement carefully. History will not be effaced in renaming Calhoun. In fact, I would have been opposed to the renaming were that to have been the case. And to those who claim that this is a moment of political correctness, I ask two questions in return: At what point does an ethical engagement with the past and the present turn into an exercise that can be reduced into click-bait buzz words? And is there any point at which change that breaks with “tradition” might be received without hostility?
It is perfectly acceptable, of course, to disagree with the decision to rename Calhoun. For years, in fact, I was opposed to a name change because I worried that it would only turn into a moment of institutional self-aggrandizement. I feared that Yalies might never know that their institution had a complicated and painful record when it came to racial politics.
I had other reasons to be opposed to changing the college name, two of which were deeply personal. First, I thought it was a powerful statement about the redemptive power of the American experiment that an African-American — one who specialized in the African-American past, no less — could run a college named for John C. Calhoun. (For the record, I was the second black person to serve as Calhoun’s master. Literary scholar Charles Davis preceded me in that role from 1973 to 1980.) The very fact that Calhoun could not imagine someone like me teaching at Yale, much less running a college, offered a commentary on how far we had come as a country. The other personal reason that I found it difficult to change the name of Calhoun is that I never actually spent a day in John C. Calhoun College. As I was quoted in a recent story in the News, “I raised my family in a loving community that happened to be called Calhoun.” My support for the name was not a declaration of affinity for John C. Calhoun or his politics. Far from it. Rather, it was a declaration of support for a place I called home.
I fully recognize that this latter statement will not stand up to the incisive declarations about the ugliness of commemorating someone whose views have been at odds with Yale’s values for so long. But life is far more complicated than what one can communicate in 140 characters in an anonymous space when one is emancipated from the hard work of talking face-to-face with the object of scorn or derision.
After so many years of taking the increasingly uncomfortable position that the name of the college should not be changed, I am certain that the Corporation made the right decision. Moreover, I applaud President Salovey for revisiting last April’s decision with thoughtfulness and patience. I am sad to see the name go, because it has meant so much to me at a very personal level, but I am thrilled that Yale has taken the public stance that it will no longer honor an individual whose principal legacy is so deeply in conflict with our core mission and values.
I am riven, and I recognize that many individuals will view this as a failure. However, I suspect that those who have lived in the college and felt themselves tossed about by the stormy debates of past years will understand. That’s good enough for me.
Jonathan Holloway is the dean of Yale College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .