As Pauli Murray and Benjamin Franklin colleges welcome their inaugural classes, the respective residential communities are taking steps to learn about their college namesakes.
The approaches the two colleges are taking are as different as the historical figures whose names are carved over the college entryways. The students in Pauli Murray are engaging with a more contemporary figure, one whose popularity in both popular culture and academic scholarship is increasing. Though his papers are housed in Sterling, Franklin is a less accessible historical figure. Still, that has not stopped the college’s administration from encouraging students to study the Founding Father’s life from a variety of angles.
Pauli Murray College is not holding back when it comes to learning about and celebrating its namesake.
Head of Pauli Murray College Tina Lu told the News that the college community is thinking of celebrating a “Pauli Murray Month” in November, as Murray was born on Nov. 20, 1910. Throughout the month, the college would hold small reading groups where participants will read some of Murray’s writings, Lu said, adding that the month would conclude with a “big birthday party” in the dining hall. In addition, Lu said that college leadership is working to bring a play about Murray — touring from Murray’s hometown of Durham, North Carolina — to campus in the spring.
“It sounds like a lot of events, but in a lot of ways we’re trying to keep these things small and intimate, and trying to make sure they retain this way of speaking to individuals,” Lu said. “Murray talked about how this society is not hospitable to people of color, women or left-handed people, and I want to make sure that people in this college feel like we’re hospitable to everyone. This is an inclusive, global Yale.”
Students pointed out that the life of Murray, which is comparatively less known than that of Franklin, offers more opportunity for students to explore.
Pauli Murray transfer Devesh Agrawal ’20 said he would love to go to events centered around the college namesake to learn more about “an incredible human being.”
Dave Rubio ’19, a Pauli Murray student, said that while holding a reading club might be difficult for “time management reasons,” something like a visual presentation of Murray’s life in the college art gallery would be a “nice touch.”
Gaurav Pathak ’19, who transferred to Pauli Murray this year, said he knows nothing about Murray except that she attended Yale Law School. He added that the birthday party is appealing, whereas discussions in the common room or lectures do not interest him.
Barbara Lau, the lead developer of the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice — a nonprofit organization focused on transforming Murray’s childhood home into a center for learning and social mobilization — told the News that Murray’s wide range of experience allows everybody to identify with at least part of her life.
She suggested that making others feel welcome is the best way to honor Murray’s efforts.
“It’s great to tell Pauli Murray’s story, but if we don’t continue her work, we’re not doing our job,” Lau said.
In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in Murray’s life and work. Labeled “The ‘Black, Queer, Feminist’ Legal Trailblazer You’ve Never Heard Of” by NPR in February 2015, Murray was sainted by the Episcopal Church in 2012 and has been the subject of two different biographies published in the last two years.
According to Lu, the new colleges will be holding a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Oct. 6 to celebrate the opening. A number of Murray’s family members — including some of her nephews, nieces, grand-nephews and grand-nieces — will attend the event, Lu said.
“We’re also going to be hosting other people who are important in her life,” Lu said. “Our first real guest in the guest suite in the head of college residence is going to be Marian Wright Edelman who was mentored by Pauli Murray and then went on to an extremely distinguished career in her own right.”
When University President Peter Salovey announced the names of the new colleges in April 2016, the decision to pair Pauli Murray College — which became the first residential college at Yale named after a woman or a person of color — with Benjamin Franklin, a writer and inventor who also owned slaves, sparked criticism from students who were both confused by the choice to recognize an individual who did not attend the University and disappointed by the Yale corporation’s decision to honor another slave-owning white male.
Part of the controversy revolved around the influence of Charles Johnson ’54, who donated $250 million to Yale in 2013 toward the construction of two new colleges — the largest donation in the University’s history — and requested that the University name one college after Franklin, a personal role model of his.
Head of Benjamin Franklin College Charles Bailyn said that copies of a biography of Franklin will be distributed to members of the college community. Bailyn added that the college will also hold some events that relate to Franklin, one of which will be organized by the editor-in-chief of the Franklin papers project, who is also a fellow of the fledgling college.
Bailyn noted that some students have expressed enthusiasm about things related to their college namesake and some have not.
“The character of the college is going to be determined by the people who live in it, and what they choose to do, not by the namesake,” Bailyn said. “So while I think it’s nice if students here learn something about Benjamin Franklin, I don’t think it’s necessary.”
Bailyn added that it is fine with him if some students choose not to participate in events relating to the college namesake.
Students interviewed expressed ambivalence about the college’s namesake, with several — among them Alisa Cui ’20 and Naima Amraan ’20, both transfers — saying they did not identify enough with Franklin to attend college events.
“I’m glad it’s not glaringly problematic, like something like Calhoun, but beyond that I don’t feel the need to have any sort of pride [in] the name,” said Cui, adding that she would consider attending events associated with the college namesake, but probably more for the free food than for the celebration itself.
Still, other students were more enthusiastic.
Vlad Vykhodets ’19, a student in Franklin, said it was hard to find anyone who is a better role model than Franklin, describing him as a Renaissance man with diverse interests and an embodiment to the idea that you can achieve whatever you want.
“I don’t buy into all the negative comments [about Franklin],” Vykhodets said. “Judging history by modern standards is wrong.”
Still, Bailyn said he thinks Franklin, who he described as an interesting role model for Yale students, is someone whose life and works are worth studying. He added that if Franklin was alive today, he would likely be a “very successful Twitterer,” given his remarkable ability to invent short aphorisms and sayings.
“He was a humanist, a scientist and a political activist all at the same time — all activities for which Yale and people associated with Yale are known,” Bailyn said.
Britton O’Daly contributed reporting.
Contact Jingyi Cui at firstname.lastname@example.org and Zainab Hamid at email@example.com .