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Amid nationwide calls to remove symbols with ties to racist parts of America’s history, demands to “#CancelYale” have surged across social media over the past week.

Originating on a June 10 post on the bulletin board website 4chan, the call to rename Yale initially began as a way to damage a largely liberal institution by “cheapen[ing]” Yale’s brand. Far-right media pundit Ann Coulter then seized the idea, writing in a June 17 op-ed that “Yale has to go!” and naming Yale’s namesake Elihu Yale as a slave owner and slave trader. Since then, people from across the political spectrum have also grabbed hold of the idea of renaming Yale — some because of Elihu Yale’s ties to slavery, but others as a way to mock political foes.

University President Peter Salovey told the News on June 25 that the University is not considering changing its name. Head of Davenport College John Witt ’94 LAW ’99 GRD ’00 — who led the committee that recommended removing John Calhoun’s name from a residential college in 2016 — also defended the University’s namesake. Unlike the senator who advocated for slavery as “a positive good,” Elihu Yale was “relatively unexceptional in his own time” with respect to slave trade, Witt argued.

Still, debates about Elihu Yale’s past have erupted across the internet in recent days, raising questions about the reach of the ongoing movement to change names and remove symbols that honor individuals with racist legacies.

Spearheaded by far right pundit Jesse Kelly, the #CancelYale movement on Twitter has largely consisted of conservative commentators and their followers. In one tweet, Kelly wrote that if Yale was going to fix “its racist history,” the University’s endowments “must be seized and distributed to black people…Otherwise, @Yale hates black people. #CancelYale.” In another tweet, Kelly asked, “How many black people were tortured and murdered in captivity because of Elihu Yale?” These tweets and others have since been liked and retweeted thousands of times.

Deen Freelon, an associate professor in the Hussman School of Media and Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said he sees the right’s general objection to cancel culture as disingenuous, because the right also utilizes “canceling” in its own way: the boycott. As examples, Freelon listed the boycotting of Costco and Nike after the former required shoppers to wear masks and the latter made Colin Kaepernick the face of its ad campaign.

While he does not criticize the general tactics of canceling or boycotting, Freelon said he does find it annoying that some on the right criticize “canceling” while reappropriating the general concept for their own crusades.

Freelon told the News that he doubts the original 4chan poster actually thought that they could get Yale to change its name — rather, the call to rename Yale was likely somewhat of a prank with a political twist, because “everything is so political right now, that’s the thing to do.”

“I don’t think the goal is to get Yale to change its name,” Freelon told the News. “From the right’s perspective, it’s to expose liberal hypocrisy … if you really were quite as woke as you say you were, then you’d oppose all of these other things.”

Some added onto Kelly’s Twitter posts with suggestions like renaming the Washington Post and New York. But while some on the right cheer on renaming Yale as a way to damage a majority-liberal institution — as the original 4chan poster said they intended — renaming the University could satisfy some left-leaning thinkers as well.

Nathan Robinson LAW ’14 wrote as such on Twitter, comparing the renaming of institutions like Yale to the renaming of American military bases, many of which bear the names of Confederate generals. In a recent article for Current Affairs — a publication for which Robinson, a self-described socialist, serves as editor in chief — he acknowledged that one technique that can be used to show that “activists are extremists” is carrying through those activists’ principles to “their logical conclusion.” But, Robinson argued, “a silly effort to troll activists” actually raises important questions.

“If we believe in renaming military bases that were named in honor of Confederate generals, what principled argument is there for not renaming Yale University?” Robinson wrote on June 23. “…What principles do we use to evaluate what should and shouldn’t be renamed? Is renaming a university so costly as to be unthinkable?”

Others have also voiced support for the idea of renaming the University. Yale Law School visiting lecturer Sean O’Brien penned a June 26 op-ed titled “Yale Must Change its Name” for the New Haven Independent, acknowledging the origins of #CancelYale in far-right influencers trolling the left — and he also included the text of a tweet that asks why Yale has yet to distance itself from its namesake despite “its so called progressivism.” Still, O’Brien wrote, those trolls could be onto something.

“To Yale’s chagrin, they have a point. It must be difficult to take a cold, hard look in the mirror when your face is covered in blood,” O’Brien wrote. “…The awful murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others should not have been required to start an honest conversation about race in America. What will it take to galvanize the process at Yale?”

Similar letters have appeared in publications like the Connecticut Mirror and the New Haven Register, with one writer comparing Elihu Yale’s legacy to that of Christopher Columbus — a statue of whom was removed from Wooster Square on Wednesday.

Beyond social media debates, measures to rename are underway at other institutions. On Friday, Princeton University announced that its school of public policy will no longer bear the name of Woodrow Wilson due to the former U.S. president’s “racist thinking and policies,” according to a press release. In a Saturday tweet, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas brought the conversation back to Yale when he commented on the decision to strip Wilson’s name from the school, saying, “Yale—founded by slave trader Elihu Yale—changes its name to ‘College of New Haven’ in 3…2…1….”

Calls to rename Yale in some ways mirror the push to rename residential college Calhoun College, which took effect on July 1, 2017.

After decades of controversy, the University opted to rename the residential college for United States Navy Rear Admiral Grace Hopper GRD ’34, with administrators saying that Calhoun’s enthusiastic support for slavery ran contrary to Yale’s values.

“The decision to change a college’s name is not one we take lightly,” Salovey wrote to the Yale community in February 2017. “But John C. Calhoun’s legacy as a white supremacist and a national leader who passionately supported slavery as a ‘positive good’ fundamentally conflicts with Yale’s mission and values.”

Crucial to the renaming decision in 2017 was the Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming, chaired by Witt. In an email to the News, Witt wrote that roughly, the three considerations articulated by his committee in the event of a possible renaming are: principal legacy, standards of the time and reasons for the naming. While each principle “pointed in favor” of renaming Calhoun College, he wrote, none of the principles point in the same direction for renaming Yale.

Witt also noted the origins of the recent call to rename Yale, and emphasized that other social concerns are more worthy of attention.

“So far as I can tell, the argument in favor of renaming Yale was originally offered by reactionaries as a slippery-slope argument against altering the Calhoun name,” Witt wrote. “I don’t think we should be distracted by it now when more important questions are on the table.”

Yale College Council President Kahlil Greene ’21 wrote in an email to the News that the idea to rename Yale did not originate from internet trolls. Rather, the idea was noted within the 91-page final report by Witt’s committee, as many alumni reacted against the creation of the committee and utilized the aforementioned slippery-slope argument.

“As I stated in my op-ed, Yale — both the institution and the person — have a history of violent racism,” wrote Greene, who penned a column for the News on June 9 discussing racism in the United States, particularly at Yale. “The priority at this moment, then, is to see how the school’s resources can be used to help the communities and populations that it has discriminated against throughout the past few centuries.”

Witt also told the News that Elihu Yale’s main legacy is Yale as the education institution, not his activities in the East India Company. As far as he understands, Witt wrote, Yale was “relatively unexceptional in his own time” with respect to the slave trade in the parts of Asia in which he worked, and the name “Yale” was applied to the current University not to honor Yale’s “moral mistakes,” but rather Yale’s initial donation that helped found the institution.

Yale’s legacy has also been contested elsewhere. According to Steven Pincus, a former Yale professor of history and current professor at the University of Chicago, Yale was never a slave trader and never owned slaves — in fact, Yale opposed the slave trade during his time as a prominent member of the East India Company and governor of Madras, Pincus argued. 

Writers Diana Scarisbrick and Benjamin Zucker ’62 state the same in their 2014 book “Elihu Yale: Merchant, Collector, and Patron,” with editor Kathrin Lassila ’81 writing for the Yale Alumni Magazine that “one commodity he did not collect was people; the authors write that he never owned slaves, and as governor ‘prohibited the trafficking of slaves in Madras.’”

But, Pincus said, Yale’s retirement led him to join the Society of the Propagation of the Gospel, a London-based religious group that began to advocate very pro-slavery views exactly at the time of Yale’s joining.

This later involvement, Pincus said, was the likely inspiration of a controversial 1708 portrait of Elihu Yale that used to hang in the Yale Corporation Room in Woodbridge Hall until its removal in 2007. The picture, titled “Elihu Yale; William Cavendish, the second Duke of Devonshire; Lord James Cavendish; Mr. Tunstal; and an Enslaved Servant,” features white noblemen sitting while a dark-skinned servant — with a padlocked collar around his neck — looks on from the lower right-hand corner.

The picture was later removed from the Corporation room, with administrators citing controversy surrounding the racist overtones of the artwork. Around the time of the removal, then-University Vice President and Secretary Linda Lorimer LAW ’77 told the News that she opted to replace the painting with another from Yale’s collection to avoid confusion that could arise without the explanation that Elihu Yale did not own slaves.

Still, disagreement over Elihu Yale’s involvement in the slave trade persists. In a 2016 Wall Street Journal op-ed titled “The College Formerly Known as Yale,” Chair of the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program Roger Kimball GRD ’82 wrote that as an administrator in India, Elihu Yale was “deeply involved” in the slave trade, and ensured that all ships leaving to Europe from his jurisdiction “carried at least 10 slaves.”

In the op-ed, Kimball wrote that Calhoun was an “amateur” compared to Elihu Yale and suggested that Yale table the Calhoun discussion in favor of Elihu Yale’s legacy. But he also questioned the rationale behind renaming institutions with contentious namesakes, noting similar efforts by officials within the Soviet Union and during the French Revolution and implying the “slippery slope” concept.

“But isn’t the whole raison d’être of universities to break the myopia of the present and pursue the truth?” Kimball wrote. “Isn’t that one important reason they enjoy such lavish public support and tax breaks?”

A pub named after Elihu Yale in Wrexham, Wales, is also considering changing its name, according to a report from the BBC. Organizers who brought Yale’s history to the attention of the pub’s owners said that Elihu Yale and his family “‘made their fortune within the slave trade and [have] since been glorified,’” and that such a legacy should not be commemorated.

Valerie Pavilonis | valerie.pavilonis@yale.edu