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  john.witt@yale.edu . Tomorrow, Anthony Kronman will publish a response.

  • Nancy Morris

    One really should mention one serious and seriously ironic Calhoun legacy: He was a major theoretician of the legal basis for the defense of minorities within a democratic constitutional structure. The minority with which he concerned himself largely consisted of white southern slave owners within the federal system. It’s ironic that Calhoun’s theories form the foundation for much modern thinking regarding the legal rights and protections of minorities today.

    I am not arguing that this part of Calhoun’s legacy warrants retaining his name on that College. His broader legacy, and his virtually non-existent involvement with Yale following his graduation, tell their own story. But it should be mentioned in this context.

    Another thing that in my opinion should be mentioned in an article entirely directed at taking pointed issue with a specific book is the title of that book, which Professor Witt nowhere mentions in this rebuttal. Am I alone in finding that odd? Anthony Kronman’s book is titled “The Assault on American Excellence” (Free Press, 272 pages, $27).

    I do not take sides, although I will note that the intensity of the rhetoric employed by both Professors Kronman and Witt brings to mind the famous observation of Wallace S. Sayre, late Columbia Professor of Political Science: “In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the stakes at issue—that is why academic politics are so bitter.” Those interested enough to read a more general review of the Kronman tome can find one in the Wall Street Journal here:

    https://www[dot]wsj[dot]com/articles/politics-books-the-agony-of-the-elites-11567177930?mod=searchresults&page=1&pos=1

  • DPS2018

    I love this essay and will share it with my organizational friends here in Hillsborough NC where we continue the battle against racist names, symbology and statues. When a white person speaks of erasure it is a racist dog-whistle. I hope in his response Anthony Kronman deals with this fact and acknowledges the crucial point that white feelings are not more important than the safety and equity that Yale provides to its students of color. Words matter. Thank you, John Fabian Witt, for the careful work you and your colleagues did for all who care about Yale, and for the time you spent crafting this excellent essay.

    • doc2513

      How does the name of a college detract from the “safety” of “students of color?” It is this sort of nonsense that gives leftists a bad name.

  • David Zincavage

    Professor Witt’s editorial is arrant nonsense of the worst kind. Slavery in America was abolished in 1865, more than 150 years ago. Slavery is a dead issue. Antebellum Southern Slavery was a settled and dead issue in 1931 when the first residential college names were selected. John C. Calhoun was on the losing side of history, but he was a Vice President of the United States, Secretary of State, Secretary of War, a Congressman, and was universally recognized as one of three greatest members of the United States Senate in the 19th Century. Calhoun was additionally an influential and significant figure in Political Philosophy, undoubtedly the most important ever produced by Yale. Apart from former President Taft who was too contemporary a political figure to be so honored, John C. Calhoun was the graduate of Yale College to have risen the highest in government service in this country.

    All of Professor Witt’s sanctimony and emotionalism regarding Calhoun’s defense of Southern Institutions and “White Supremacy” are ridiculous and intellectually unworthy of his education and his position. Professor Witt ought to ashamed and embarrassed to adopt publicly the simplistic and pernicious positions of the rancid radical Left and to be carried away with the naïve world view of badly educated adolescents.

    Has he never heard the maxim autre temps, autre moeurs? Does he seriously believe that everyone, North and South, unfortunate enough to have been born prior to the formation of the current community of fashion’s moral perspective was the equivalent of Hitler and Stalin? White Supremacy? John C. Calhoun differed from Abraham Lincoln in his opinion of the moral status of Slavery, but he and Lincoln both (I will not bother providing the obvious Lincoln quotation), along with nearly every other American of European descent alive at the time, believed firmly in White Supremacy.

    Professor Witt is also, I contend, disingenuous in the extreme in pretending firstly that some kind of objective, universally perceptible standard of Requiring-Renaming-ness is available out there to be discovered by a process of research and analysis. Now, that is spectacular nonsense! Secondly, I contend, he is even more misleading in pretending that his committee’s objective was ever anything but a foregone conclusion. Professor Witt himself is a highly partisan historian, taking the side opposed to that of the Southern Confederacy and the late Senator Calhoun just as passionately as the most radical Republican of the 1850s.

    It is a poor argument on his part to claim that, absent the immediate stimulus of a radical left-wing demand and a student mob, he and Peter Salovey have not yet renamed every college and excommunicated Elihu Yale himself. That those things have not happened so far does not disprove in the least the hazard of the slippery slope. Anyone and anything not a part of the radical left’s own tradition that existed before roughly 1968 stands vulnerable to denunciation, indictment, and condemnation for Thought Crime and Oppression on the basis of the philosophy espoused by Professor Witt.

    • ldffly

      Outstanding. Permit me to add a couple of thoughts here.

      No one knows the full motives behind naming a college
      after John C. Calhoun. To the best of my knowledge, the discussions of the trustees were not recorded. As you did, we can all point to Calhoun’s long service in national offices and his reputation as a political theorist of the highest order, attested to by no less than John Stuart Mill. His theory of concurrent majority has been influential in regards to minority interests in a democratic society.

      His positive defense of slavery was detestable even within his own time. I’ll go out on a limb and speculate that this defense of slavery was never even a small part of the rationale for the naming. Indeed, consider that this naming occurred in the 1930s, that it occurred in a Union/New England state, and that it was done by a group of men who had little use for the south of the plantation era. In such a context, it would take the most expansive imagination to make the case that the original naming was a nod to the ante bellum/pro slavery South. This renaming really is not the undoing of a wrong perpetrated 80 some years ago, but a nod to current, changed attitudes and perspectives concerning American history.

      I do suspect that the postmodern crowd is in a period of rest and recharging in regard to campus names. I predict the next round will probably focus on Morse and Jonathan Edwards. We’ll see.

  • SirEarl

    I have no quarrel with the renaming of Calhoun, but it’s hardly self-evident that “embracing the amazing students of today’s more dynamic campus” is compatible with excellence.

    Professor Witt correctly recognizes that “Pleasing students as consumers is at odds with what universities should be.” But if the university’s reaction to the self-righteous bullying of the Christakases (including the student who bleated, “It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home here.”), its elimination of the title of Master, and its removal of a carving of a Puritan with a musket from the front of the library are any indication, it seems that mollifying discontents and creating a bloated diversity bureaucracy is more important than the discovery and dissemination of knowledge.

  • the_Siliconopolitan

    Surely there is room for compromise.

    Don’t the chemistry and biology departments collect their hazardous waste somewhere? That would be a place eminently aligned with the values and memory of Calhoun.

  • charliewalls

    A question for Kronman: If “debate about white supremacy” is desirable, isn’t having a college with its name changed a better stimulus than one standing as it has been for years…?
    A question for Witt: Your review of name-changing reasoning suggests the university is in the wrong in destroying the name Gibbs Laboratory as they now build in its place the Yale Science Laboratory. Shouldn’t that be subjected to the standards of your committee…?