Head of Davenport College John Witt announced on Monday the formation of a student committee charged with improving the diversity of the portraits that hang from the walls of the college.
In a collegewide email, Witt — who last year chaired the faculty-led committee that drafted broad principles on renaming and who took over as head of Davenport this fall — wrote that the committee would explore ways to complement the portraits hanging in the college with “more contemporary images of figures from a wide array of backgrounds and from many walks of life.”
“It’s … fair to say that the imagery of our walls has not quite kept up with our traditions,” Witt wrote. “For several decades now, the imagery of our walls has not reflected the diversity of Davenport’s student body, fellowship or staff.”
The new Davenport committee will be one of several campus groups looking into art and representation at Yale. In April, University President Peter Salovey formed the Grace Hopper Window Commission Committee, a group comprised of students, faculty and administrators that is charged with recommending artists to design new windows for the college. And the University’s longstanding Committee on Art in Public Spaces has spent the last year exploring ways to represent Yale’s diversity through artwork.
Witt declined to elaborate on his email. But in addition to forming the committee, he has looked into securing a portrait of Katherine Lustman, the first female residential college head, according to Sam Chauncey ’57, a Davenport fellow and former University secretary. Lustman became head of Davenport in 1971.
College artwork played an important role over the last two years in the racially charged debate leading up to the renaming of Calhoun College in February. In the winter of 2016, Julia Adams, the head of the newly renamed Grace Hopper College, had portraits of John C. Calhoun, class of 1804, removed from the dining hall and college house.
And that summer, a cafeteria worker named Corey Menafee made national headlines for using a broomstick to smash a stained-glass window in the Calhoun dining hall that depicted slaves carrying bales of cotton.
According to Tresa Joseph ’18, co-president of the Davenport College Council and a former Production and Design Editor for the News, Witt solicited advice on the portrait project from the DCC and the college at large on multiple occasions before Monday’s announcement, including during a recent council meeting.
“I think he is someone who is genuinely open to input and collaboration with the students, which is why I think that this committee that he’s forming is really promising,” Joseph said.
Other Davenport students interviewed also applauded Witt’s initiative.
Tarek Ziad ’20 said the portrait project epitomizes Witt’s commitment to diversity and inclusivity, which several students said has defined the first weeks of his tenure as Davenport head. Witt has already assembled a group of black graduate affiliates to advise black Davenport students, Ziad said.
Kesi Wilson ’21 said that given Yale’s tendency to sometimes honor the wrong leaders, it is important to line Davenport’s walls with figures students can collectively admire.
Although all Davenport students interviewed emphasized the importance of increasing the diversity of Davenport’s portraits, many also expressed other visions for the project.
Lily Mirfakhraie ’19 said she would like to see paintings of Davenport alumni, as well as the typical portraits of former college heads. She said the project could be a great opportunity for Yalies to learn more about the University’s history while also helping shape its future.
Several students said Witt’s initiative could set a precedent for the other residential colleges. The project seems set to promote Yale’s identity as a global, diverse community, as well as put pressure on other colleges to follow Davenport’s example, said Kevin Tang ’21.
John Davenport was an English Puritan clergyman and co-founder of the American colony of New Haven.
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Correction, Sept. 19: The original article described the Grace Hopper Window Commission Committee as a student group. In fact, it is a committee comprised of students, faculty and administrators.