Before Benjamin Franklin and Pauli Murray colleges opened their gates for the first time this August, the two new residential facilities on Prospect Street stood at the center of a long-running campus debate about race, symbolism and historical memory.
As students begin to explore the colleges — sampling soft-serve ice cream and ramen noodles in the dining halls and reading on benches in the raised courtyards — that debate increasingly seems like a distant memory. But the fallout from the University’s decisions on the names of the two new colleges could have significant implications for the future, encouraging community discussion on a range of issues and opening a line of communication between students and the Yale Corporation.
“Whereas in the past the decisions about the naming of colleges were left entirely to the president and the trustees, in the modern era you have to find a way of building a consensus in the community,” said former University secretary Sam Chauncey ’57. “The administration has to very carefully assess the wishes of the community as a whole and try not to silence people.”
The debate over the naming of the colleges began in earnest in fall 2015. With racially charged protests sweeping college campuses across the country, the as-yet-unnamed construction sites by Science Hill emerged as a litmus test for Yale’s commitment to diversity: Would the University seize the opportunity to honor a woman or person of color, students asked, or choose another dead white man as a college namesake?
In the end, Yale did both. The college closest to Science Hill was named after Anna Pauline Murray LAW ’65, a queer black activist who co-founded the National Organization for Women. But to the dismay of student protesters, the second college was named in honor of the founding father Benjamin Franklin — a writer and inventor who also owned slaves.
In his April 2016 email announcing the names of the two new colleges — as well as the news that Calhoun College would keep its controversial namesake — University President Peter Salovey noted that Franklin was the personal hero of Charles Johnson ’56, whose $250 million gift funded the college expansion.
The next day, at a town-hall meeting in Battell Chapel, students in the balcony showered Salovey with fake one million dollar bills. Some of the protesters sported T-shirts that recast the namesake of Franklin College as Aretha Franklin, a black singer-songwriter who received an honorary degree from Yale in 2010. The News later confirmed what many of those students suspected: That years earlier the Corporation had decided to name one of the two new colleges after Franklin at the request of Johnson.
“There’s one very clear lesson,” Salovey said in an interview last week. “When the decision was first made to honor Charlie and show our gratitude to him, by selecting the name Benjamin Franklin, it should’ve been announced quickly.”
Yet, in some ways, the secrecy surrounding the Franklin decision has turned into a victory for student activists. After the campus backlash, the Corporation embarked on a months-long effort to improve the diversity and accessibility of Yale’s top decision-makers. Senior Fellow Donna Dubinsky ’77 unveiled a website with updated information about the Corporation. And crucially, she pledged to hold regular meetings between students and trustees.
Although some activists have called those initiatives insufficient, the trustees appear to be following through on their promise of community outreach. During the Corporation’s most recent meeting in June, Dubinsky spent half a day meeting with students and faculty at the School of Medicine to discuss the rapid growth of the institution and the latest advances in medical technology.
“The college students were gone but that gave me an opportunity to focus on some other areas,” she said in an interview over the summer. “It was a nice opportunity to reach out to other students.”
For his part, Salovey has sought to transform Benjamin Franklin from a symbol of racially charged conflict into an educational model for the new class of first years.
In his annual Opening Address, Salovey called on students to emulate the creativity and curiosity of Franklin, praising his “flexible statesmanship” and his willingness to change his mind, especially on the topic of slavery. He also highlighted similar attributes in Pauli Murray and Grace Hopper, the new namesake of Calhoun College.
“It’s important to look forward,” Salovey told the News. “We have three new names of colleges on our campus. It’s important to keep the focus on revealing again and again the way those names can inspire our community.”
Contact David Yaffe-Bellany at firstname.lastname@example.org .