Last month, my colleague Anthony Kronman, the former dean of Yale Law School, published a book contending that efforts to nurture diversity on campus are undermining the core values of America’s great universities. The book takes special aim at the decision to rename the Yale college formerly known as Calhoun College, named after John Calhoun, a South Carolina statesman and leading defender of slavery. Kronman says that colleges and universities have a responsibility to “cultivate the capacity for enduring the moral ambiguities of life.” He calls the renaming decision “an educational disgrace,” compares renaming to the Soviet Politburo and charges those who participated in the decision with “a glaring intellectual failure.”
These judgments are of special interest to me. I chaired the committee that developed the guidelines leading to Calhoun’s renaming. I consider Dean Kronman a friend. He was my teacher. I admire the fierce energy of his mind. His observations about the renaming of Calhoun are candid and direct. I, too, will cut to the chase.
Kronman is wrong about diversity. He misstates the guidelines our committee produced. He insults students and colleagues in an ill-considered fit of pique. It pains me to say that he does a disservice to the very values he purports to defend.
Here is what Yale’s Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming did. In the spring of 2016, University President Peter Salovey announced an initial decision to retain the name of Calhoun College. Discontent with the decision led him to convene our committee later that summer. We studied renaming and its discontents in world history and in recent controversies on university campuses. We consulted leading scholars and educators with a range of views on the question. We researched extensively in the University archives. We held open conversations around the campus and with hundreds of alumni and faculty members. At the end of the fall term, we produced a report setting out what we found and articulating guidelines to help identify instances in which a historical building name ought to be altered.
Our report began with “the central mission” of the University: “to discover and disseminate knowledge.” We established a “strong presumption” in favor of keeping names, including complicated and difficult names. We added strength to that presumption when a namesake contributed substantially to the life of the University. We then articulated four questions to ask in determining whether renaming is appropriate. The first was whether “a principal legacy of the namesake” is “fundamentally at odds with the mission of the University.” Our second question was whether the legacy in question is “significantly contested in the time and place in which the namesake lived.” Our third question asked whether the University’s original decision to use a particular name was motivated by reasons at odds with the University’s mission. Finally, we asked about the purpose of the building at issue. Buildings that “play a substantial role in forming community,” especially buildings to which students are assigned without choice, are different than buildings that serve mainly as intellectual or study spaces. In the rare instance of a renaming, we added, the University has obligations to preserve the history of a name and its place on the campus.
We also studied and reported on the life and ideas of John Calhoun. We explored his theoretical contributions, his deeply flawed views of race and his defense of slavery as a positive good. We produced a definitive account of the naming of Calhoun College, uncovering a fuller story than had before appeared. And we reiterated the central mission of the University.
You would not know much of this from Kronman’s book.
Kronman writes about the “the totalitarian regimes of the Nazis and Soviets,” which erased history and substituted false narratives better suited to the political needs of the regime. He coyly insists that he is not comparing our committee to the Soviet Politburo. But no one was talking about a Politburo on campus until the critics of renaming started doing so.
Readers of Kronman’s book will not know it, but our committee took up the topic of totalitarian renamings. We agreed that they are anathema to the mission of a liberal education. We also observed something that Kronman does not: Liberal democracies also rename. Yale has renamed buildings and sites throughout its history to advance its mission. There are dozens of renaming examples on this campus. We listed them in our report.
My favorite example from higher education is Columbia University, which was King’s College until Independence made the name inconsistent with the values of the new republic. Renaming King’s College was no act of dangerous erasure. Just look at the crowns on Columbia’s shield. Our committee insisted that any honorable renaming would leave salient reminders of the foregone name. A stone mask of John Calhoun remains in what is now the Grace Hopper College courtyard. Calhoun’s name appears on arches in two undergraduate colleges. A statue of the man stands on Harkness Tower. Totalitarian erasure? Hardly.
Kronman charges that the committee engaged in an illegitimate reverse-engineering of principles to rename Calhoun while preserving the remaining colleges. I understand why he levels such a charge. When our committee was formed, many critics said that changing Calhoun would force more name changes. Eight other residential colleges are named after slave-owners. Critics said we would have to rename Yale itself, since Elihu Yale was involved in the slave trade.
Three years later there has been no domino effect. The critics were wrong. To avoid embarrassment, Kronman develops a conspiracy theory. He says that our committee produced an outcome-oriented set of rules designed for one name. We thereby “damaged the honor and prestige” of the rule of law, he says.
Kronman is wrong to adopt such an uncharitable interpretation of his colleagues’ motives. Here’s an easier explanation: Calhoun was different. Kronman overlooks the common law method he taught me as a student. Judges derive rules from concrete cases and controversies. Discrete controversies focus attention on the real-world significance of rules. Philosophers, too, resolve ethical puzzles by putting cases in conversation with abstract principles. Our committee adopted these methods to evaluate the general problem of renamings in the context of Yale’s particular controversy. Kronman does the same when he teaches contracts to first-year law students.
Closer attention to the report would have revealed that the value we articulated as the University’s mission was no intellectual failure. Kronman says that Yale’s mission statement is made up of platitudes. Set aside whether he is right or wrong. Our report could not have been clearer. We interpreted the mission as embodying “the values of discovering and disseminating knowledge that are at the center of the University.”
Kronman’s analysis makes more than one error. He asserts that the committee determined that Calhoun’s sole principal legacy was white supremacy. For nearly 10 pages, Kronman argues that Calhoun’s legacy is not white supremacy, but a debate about white supremacy.
Yet Kronman’s account rests on an oversight. Nothing in the report requires identifying one legacy. Kronman ungraciously asserts that historians’ training added no value to the committee’s inquiry. (We had five historians in the group.) But he is wrong. No good historian would assert that complex historical figures have a single legacy. And we did not. Legacies are complex and multiple. “We ask about a namesake’s principal legacies,” we wrote, emphasis on “principal legacies”, “because human lives, as Walt Whitman wrote, are large; they contain multitudes.” Kronman charges us with “swaggering confidence” in our own moral judgments. We made no such mistake. Our analysis turned on the opposite.
This last confusion is connected to an indefensible error in Kronman’s argument against renaming. Kronman readily agrees that some names would be unacceptable. Hitler and Stalin would have to come off buildings, but he says “less egregious” cases like Calhoun are different. Renaming Calhoun, he writes, “may feel good,” but “does little to boost a real spirit of moral solidarity, which is better strengthened by facing the past.” Kronman concedes that such solidarity comes at an apparent cost for students of color. Honoring the leading white supremacist of the age of slavery might be “a source of discomfort, even of pain” to students. But he insists that there is only one morally worthwhile response to that pain. “What serious young person,” Kronman asks, “would not want to wear” the pain of living in Calhoun College as a “badge of pride”?
But this is preposterous. What kind of solidarity is achieved at the expense of a historically subordinated subset of the community? Not a single black student matriculated at Yale College for a decade after Calhoun College opened. Yet if we believe Kronman, every “serious” student of color on the Yale campus, at least any “serious” African-American student, ought to have supported the Calhoun name. Those who advocated a name change were apparently not serious people. And what of the white Calhoun students? Should they have seized their badges of honor too? Kronman’s amateur psychology is breathtakingly disrespectful. Serious students and faculty stood on both sides of the issue.
Does Kronman really think that students have been deprived of opportunities to find discrimination in our world? Should the mathematics major who is descended from enslaved American ancestors need to register their Calhoun affiliation before taking a “Real Analysis” exam? Does Kronman think that the symbols of slavery on campus don’t offer opportunities to reflect on our history? Does he think that persistent racial wealth gaps don’t provide ample opportunity to discuss moral complexities? I talk to students every day and I can assure Kronman that these conversations are happening in full, with the mix of righteous moral principle, youthful confusion and intellectual energy characteristic of the best undergraduate discussion.
Ultimately, it is Kronman who swaggers through the debate about American slavery. He tells us that Stalin and Hitler are different from Calhoun. But that only goes so far. Historians have argued for decades about how to compare the experience of enslaved persons in the Americas to the Holocaust or to the Soviet purges. A number of morally serious positions exist. Is a university unreasonable to conclude that John Calhoun played a singular role in the distinctive and decentralized form of mass exploitation that was New World slavery? Is it so patently a failure of the University’s obligations of moral stewardship to remove the most startling manifestation of the honor still afforded to slave-owners on our campus? We drew careful distinctions among the many symbols connected to slavery all around us. Yet Kronman insists that the sky is falling.
Calhoun College offered a small number of teachers, myself included, a highly salient opportunity in classroom discussions of slavery. In this sense, the name alteration represents a loss: a small one in light of the symbols that remain, but a loss. More often, however, the name Calhoun was a campus shorthand, a Yale ID sticker, an intramural sports cheer, and an identity to be defended against cross-campus rivals. And for many, the name stood for the ways in which Yale still accorded honor to even the most fervent architect of white supremacy.
I sympathize with at least one dimension of Kronman’s book. Learning is difficult. Knowledge is hard won. Pleasing students as consumers is at odds with what universities should be.
Our committee aimed to carry the best traditions of scholarship and teaching forward into the era of a deeper talent pool. Our report garnered favorable reactions from observers who disagreed on much else. Leading universities have followed our lead. The saddest fact about Kronman’s book is that his attacks make it harder to defend and celebrate the most worthy features of the University. He associates excellence with a dogged defense of white supremacy’s most glaring symbols. Americans know all about admissions scandals and donor influence. Now we should think that embracing the amazing students of today’s more dynamic campus is an obstacle to excellence? Come on. Don’t believe it for a minute.
John Fabian Witt is the Duffy Class of 1960 Professor of Law at Yale Law School and Head of Davenport College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org . Tomorrow, Anthony Kronman will publish a response.