Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Immediately after Saturday afternoon’s renaming announcement, members of what until then had been called Calhoun College were already self-identifying as proud members of Grace Hopper College, both in person and on social media.
Students and faculty praised the administration’s decision to rename Calhoun in honor of pioneering computer scientist and Navy Rear Admiral Grace Hopper GRD ’34. Female faculty members and students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields told the News that they are particularly excited that the new namesake is both a woman and a member of the scientific community, citing her empowering legacy and her status as a positive role model.
“As a female professor of computer science, I could not be more proud of Yale than I am today,” computer science professor Joan Feigenbaum said. “Grace Murray Hopper College will be a tangible symbol of Yale’s commitment to women’s equality and to the importance of computer science.”
Hopper, who earned her master’s degree in 1930 and her Ph.D. in mathematics in 1934, both from Yale, was one of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark I computer and invented the first compiler for a computer programming language. She helped develop COBOL, one of the first high-level programming languages, and popularized the use of the term “bug” in reference to computer software failures.
In his Saturday email to the Yale community announcing the decision, University President Peter Salovey said that out of hundreds of naming suggestions by alumni, faculty, students and staff, Hopper’s name occurred most frequently.
“An extraordinary mathematician and a senior naval officer, Hopper achieved eminence in fields historically dominated by men,” Salovey wrote. “Today, her principal legacy is all around us — embodied in the life-enhancing technology she knew would become commonplace. Grace Murray Hopper College thus honors her spirit of innovation and public service while looking fearlessly to the future.”
Feigenbaum, who holds the title of Grace Murray Hopper Professor of Computer Science at Yale, said that while she is generally opposed to the practice of renaming buildings, she is “ecstatic” that Hopper, one of the most influential and least appreciated Yale alumni, is finally getting the recognition she deserves. She added that many alumni, faculty and students pushed for one of the two new residential colleges to be named after Hopper, and it was logical that she would be honored the next time a college was being named.
Computer science professor Holly Rushmeier praised Hopper as a brilliant public servant responsible for the effective use of computer systems in the Navy, adding that Hopper made a breakthrough in computer programming with the use of English-like code rather than binary machine code.
The Association for Computer Machinery has been awarding the Grace Murray Hopper Award to young computer scientists since 1971.
Valerie Chen ’19, a member of Float, a campus group that works to empower women in computer science, said attendees of a regular group meeting on Sunday felt proud to see such an important computer science figure honored in this way. Hopper, she said, is one of the most recognizable names in computer science and engineering, but many students are just starting to learn about her after the announcement.
Chen added she was surprised to see Hopper’s sharp sense of humor emerge in archival video footage. Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Tamar Gendler, who also praised Hopper’s legacy as a computer scientist, teacher and public servant, added that she was struck by Hopper’s 1986 interview with David Letterman. When asked how she knew so much about computers in the 1940s, Hopper responded, “I didn’t; I was the first one.”
Still, Chen said Hopper is just one of many computer science trailblazers who deserve recognition.
“This naming is a big stepping stone for women in STEM and STEM fields in general,” Chen said. “But my hope is for us to remember that Hopper, incredible as she was, was just one of many — there were and are so many more women, especially those of color, who have made great contributions to science and technology, and haven’t received the level of recognition they deserve.”
Saran Morgan ’18, the events chair for Float, said she was familiar with Hopper’s legacy prior to the announcement, as she wrote one of her main college application essays about Hopper. Morgan was also an advocate for naming a new residential college after Hopper, and attended the annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference — the largest of its kind — this fall in Houston.
Morgan said the naming decision would not have been possible without the “tireless work” of students, faculty, staff and New Haven residents.
“As a black woman in computer science, I’m happy to see both the retirement of the Calhoun name and the ushering in of Grace Hopper,” Morgan said. “It’s the best of both worlds and something I never thought I’d see in my time here at Yale based on the University’s prior reactions to calls for change.”
Still, members of the Yale community said Hopper’s accomplishments are meaningful also to those outside of the STEM community. Rushmeier cited Hopper’s dedication to public service as a longtime member of the Navy, adding that her devotion to inspiring young people and encouraging them to try new things is a message applicable to the entire Yale community.
Chase Ammon ’18, a member of the Navy ROTC, said that many members of the group had hoped one of the new residential colleges would bear Hopper’s name and supported the student campaigns in pursuit of that goal last year.
“While I can’t speak for all members of ROTC, I am thrilled that Yale will honor such a brilliant naval leader whose dedication to service and science are legacies that should be honored and will hopefully inspire others to follow,” Ammon said.
Morgan said there are relatable parts of Hopper’s life for every student. She spoke to the larger symbolism of the decision, adding that Pauli Murray will no longer be the “token woman college.”
“Today, our daily lives are shaped by computers and networks,” Feigenbaum said. “Grace Murray Hopper was one of the world’s first computer scientists, and she literally invented many of the key elements of computer programming as we know it, from subroutines to machine-independent languages. What could be more exciting to Yale faculty and students than the opportunity to claim her as one of our own?”