The violence in Charlottesville last weekend — set off by a white nationalist rally against the planned removal of a Confederate statue on the University of Virginia campus — has put a fresh spotlight on the years-long debate at Yale that culminated in the renaming of Calhoun College in February.
On Tuesday, President Donald Trump defended the monument to Confederate general Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, arguing that removing the statue would create a slippery slope. In his remarks, Trump echoed a view held by many opponents of the University’s decision to rename Calhoun College — that eliminating monuments to slaveholders sets a dangerous precedent.
“So this week, it is Robert E. Lee,” Trump said at a press conference. “I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after?”
Perhaps unwittingly, Trump was wading into a complex debate about race, symbolism and historical memory that divided the Yale community for years. But, faculty experts say, Trump’s approach to the issue lacks the nuance of the campus discussions at Yale.
“A lot of serious people have worried about the slippery slope problem. It’s not something to be scoffed at,” said John Witt ’94 LAW ’99 GRD ’00, a law professor who chaired the Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming. “But the debate’s moved to a new place, where we’ve started to be able to talk about the ways in which judgments can be made that distinguish among different kinds of people.”
In February, the Yale Corporation voted to rename Calhoun College — which was named after slavery proponent and statesman John C. Calhoun, class of 1804 — based on guidelines established by Witt’s committee.
In a 24-page report released last December, the committee argued that universities should make renaming decisions by examining a namesake’s “principal legacy,” or the central reason the figure is remembered, rather than a biographical footnote.
“George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are symbols of the American Revolution and independence, so I don’t believe they are likely to fall victim to any ‘slippery slope’ argument,” said Wendy Xiao MED ’18, another committee member.
The argument Trump made on Tuesday is a “red herring” that ignores recent scholarship, said David Blight, a history professor who studies the Civil War and served on the renaming committee.
“It’s become a simplistic line,” Blight said. “If there were people actually advocating George Washington’s removal, then we might have a debate.”
Outside Yale, however, not everyone has interpreted the Calhoun debate as a refutation of Trump. On Twitter, Fox News commentator Harlan Hill argued that Yale removed the Calhoun name “[because] he was a slave owner” — just like Washington and Jefferson.
And on Thursday, Trump doubled down on his defense of Confederate statues.
“Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments,” he wrote on Twitter.
Still, while the renaming committee’s report appears not to have made it onto the president’s desk, the principles outlined at Yale are starting to influence the broader national debate. Using the Yale guidelines, the University of Mississippi decided last month to remove the name of a white supremacist from an administrative building.
“I’m hearing and seeing people talk about principal legacies and asking why it was that monuments were put up,” Witt said. “The committee did a lot of hard work, and if that work’s useful to others as we try to think about these problems now, I’m grateful for that.”