Saturday was a joyous day. After decades of student opposition, the University finally prioritized the well-being of black students at Yale over artificial tradition. The initial refusal to change the name will be seen as an absurdity several years from now, not that it wasn’t already for those who cared to look. John C. Calhoun, class of 1804, the prophet of slavery, reserved himself an honorable mention at Yale for two facile reasons: He was an important racist in a racist government, and the entire realm of history would be swiped clean if the name of a merely 86-year-old college was changed.
Calhoun may be gone from the building, but he will cause a widening gap between alumni and students. These splinters will manifest themselves most starkly in the terms alumni and students use to self-identify. Explaining the process of affiliation moving forward, Dean Holloway fleshed out the choice facing this most unfortunate of colleges: All Calhoun alums and seniors have the choice of switching affiliations to Hopper, while current and future students will only affiliate with Hopper. From now on there will exist two distinct communities belonging to the same college: the Hounie Old Guard and the Young Hoppers. There can be no more prevarication, no more sitting on the fence. Screw your courage to the sticking place and either come out for progress or stick to the old ways. This makes the moral dilemma much clearer. People must stump for a position which they find conscionable.
We ought to criticize the administration for making the affiliation change voluntary, and the alumni who choose to remain Hounies. Consider what the administration has done. It has condemned Calhoun in the strongest terms possible but will nonetheless “privilege” alumni with the option of retaining the affiliation. President Salovey noted in his email that Calhoun’s principal legacy “conflicts fundamentally with the values Yale has long championed.” If that is the case — as it undeniably is — allowing alumni to affiliate with Calhoun is an egregious wrong because it perpetuates the glorification of Calhoun, albeit for a smaller cross-section of the Yale community.
The justification Salovey provides for alumni to keep the name is that we should not erase history. This is a way of covering the University’s true intention: to appease alumni and prospective donors. We don’t need a horde of Yale alumni retaining the affiliation to Calhoun to remember the University’s shameful past; a plaque noting this history suffices. The real silver bullet debunking the administration’s claim is its inconsistency: If affiliation preserves history, why not allow current and future Yale students the option of keeping the name? What the University has done is allow a specific subset of Yalies to keep the name for nothing more than personal affection.
We should also criticize alumni who purposefully choose to remain Hounies. They have prioritized their selfish claims to the University over a real confrontation with America’s sordid past. I understand that alumni will hold onto the name for different reasons. Only a tiny subset see nothing wrong with Calhoun. Most alumni just associate the name with their bright college years: days of infinite hope and exploration. I admit I would feel hesitant if the University considered changing Saybrook’s name; it would feel like a theft of memory, like the University was disregarding my place in the institution’s vast universe. But progress requires sacrifice. Moreover, your gain comes at the loss of black Americans. Attachment to the name Calhoun shows callous indifference to the experiences of students of color. You might only see a detached name associated with nostalgia, but for black Americans he is perhaps the worst human to have ever lived. His words comforted and encouraged slavers across the country.
Knowing Calhoun’s legacy — and still choosing to identify with him, even for ostensibly benign reasons — is an act of callousness unbecoming of a Yale graduate. It is symptomatic of America’s wider problem of ignoring the historical injustice at its hypocritical foundations.
Adam Krok is a sophomore in Saybrook College. His column usually runs on alternate Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .