During the renaming ceremony for Calhoun College’s dining hall, now named in honor of Roosevelt Thompson ’84, former President Bill Clinton LAW ’73 made a surprise appearance in the form of a letter to University President Peter Salovey.
Around 60 alumni and members of Thompson’s family gathered Thursday night to celebrate the legacy of a former Rhodes Scholarship recipient, freshman counselor, varsity athlete and beloved community member. A small reunion accompanied the ceremony, which Thompson’s seven freshman-year suitemates, his two brothers and friends from the classes of 1984 traveled from all over the world to attend. Salovey read Clinton’s letter — which arrived at Woodbridge Hall yesterday — in praise of Thompson’s “supernatural balance of self-possession and discipline with his keen awareness and deep concern for others.”
Prior to his death in an automobile accident during the final semester of his senior year at Yale, Thompson worked as an intern for Clinton while he was governor of Arkansas. Clinton endorsed the University’s decision to name Calhoun’s dining hall after Thompson, a move Clinton wrote would inspire Yale students who “have more power than they know, to be and do good.”
“When he won the Rhodes Scholarship, it must have been the easiest decision the selection committee has ever made,” wrote Clinton, a Rhodes scholar himself.
A portrait of Thompson — which hangs on one wall of the dining hall — was installed on Monday.
At the ceremony, friends and family members shared memories of Thompson and praised his commitment to civil service. Thompson’s friends and family said naming a dining hall after him was very appropriate, given that dining halls played a central role in Thompson’s undergraduate student life.
Leading the ceremony was Julia Adams, head of Calhoun College, who said Thompson’s recognition came at an appropriate time amid campus and national conversations about the name and legacy of John C. Calhoun, class of 1804.
Adams explained the details of Thompson’s portrait, noting that the apple blossoms and mockingbirds in the background represent the state flower and bird of Arkansas. These images, Adams said, reminded us of “the grace and … harmony of a natural order and the transcendent importance of our common humanity and human rights.”
“I wish I had thought of this myself,” Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway, a former head of Calhoun, said of the dining hall renaming.
Holloway said Thompson and Calhoun were mentioned in a conversation he had with Clinton while sitting next to the former president during a Class Day ceremony.
Bryan Blaney ’84, a close friend of Thompson’s, said were he alive, Thompson could have run for president in the 2016 election. Other classmates of Thompson’s reflected on the great potential and promise of their college friend.
“Before Barack Obama, it was our thought that [Thompson] would become the first African-American president,” Angela Harris ’84 said. “He was very well-respected. Would do anything for anybody.”
Thompson’s friends and family praised the Calhoun College leadership for deciding to name the dining hall after him, although some had expected the University to rename the entire college after Thompson.
Errol Crook ’84, who played with Thompson on the Yale football team, said the dining hall was the most appropriate place for Thompson to be honored because Thompson was a unique voice in the “strongly opinionated, but mostly civil” conversations that often take place when students have meals together.
“He was a listener with the precision of a surgeon who made very wise, observant, fact-based comments,” Crook said.
Bill Taylor ’84, a suitemate of Thompson’s for two years, said he would prefer changing the name of Calhoun College, but added that he was satisfied with the dining hall honor. Taylor said he enjoys imagining Calhoun turning over in his grave by the thought of an African-American being honored in a building with his name.
Augie Rivera ’84, another suitemate, flew from his home in Texas to attend the ceremony. He said Thompson was part of what made Yale special for him.
“The people you meet here will always stay with you,” Rivera said. “He may have left us early, but he’s always with us.”
A plaque bearing the dining hall’s new name was installed on a stone pillar in the dining hall. Salovey said he intends to frame the letter from Bill Clinton and hang it in the dining hall along with Thompson’s portrait.
When University President Peter Salovey formed Yale’s new renaming committee this August, he acknowledged that campus administrators fell short during last year’s racially charged naming debates.
“It is now clear to me that the communitywide conversation about these issues could have drawn more effectively on campus expertise,” Salovey wrote in a University-wide email on Aug. 1. “In particular, we would have benefited from a set of well-articulated guiding principles according to which a historical name might be removed or changed.”
In the wake of faculty backlash against the University leadership’s decision last April to keep the name of Calhoun College, Salovey tasked the Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming with creating guidelines that will apply to the Calhoun controversy as well as all future naming decisions.
But since September, the renaming committee — whose task represents the latest administrative attempt to shape a year-and-a-half-long naming debate — has raised new questions in the Yale community about the University’s decision-making process.
In interviews with the News, various students and faculty said they were skeptical of what they see as Salovey’s current efforts to influence the course of the naming debate. Some argued that Salovey established the committee to justify potentially reversing his original decision to keep the Calhoun name. Others speculated that he wants to distribute responsibility for the upcoming decision across many different campus constituencies. And regardless of views on Salovey’s agenda, nearly every student interviewed said he or she has grown tired of discussing the Calhoun controversy, which has been further drawn out by the committee’s work this semester.
In recent weeks, Salovey has also faced new criticism over the renaming committee from Yale staff. An October petition calling for the University to appoint a blue-collar worker to the committee — which comprises six faculty members, three alumni, one communications officer, an undergraduate and a graduate student — received over 900 signatures from students, faculty and Yale Dining employees. On Tuesday, at a meeting intended to ease tensions with the blue-collar workforce, Shirley Lawrence, the Yale Dining employee who spearheaded the petition, accused the renaming committee of “disrespect and exclusion.”
In September and October, the committee held listening sessions in all 12 residential colleges and a drop-in meeting at the Yale Law School. For the most part, those sessions each attracted only a handful of students.
“I really don’t know what the whole purpose of [the committee] is,” said Scott Smith ’18. “Because they did come out and say they weren’t going to rename it, but if they weren’t going to rename it, why do they have the committee?”
Last fall, Eli Ceballo-Countryman ’18, a student in Calhoun, played a central role in student protests calling for the college to be renamed. After Yale decided to keep the Calhoun name, Ceballo-Countryman wrote a Facebook post in which she condemned the University for “upholding slavery,” and vowed to transfer out of Calhoun at the earliest opportunity.
But in September, at the committee’s listening session in Calhoun, Ceballo-Countryman made a different argument: that the establishment of the committee shows the battle to change the name has already been won, and that the next step is to pressure administrators to select a suitable replacement.
“I’m not too worried about this college anymore,” she said at the meeting. “I know that if this name doesn’t change some people’s heads on campus will actually implode.”
In a follow-up interview, Ceballo-Countryman said she was convinced that the University intends to rename Calhoun.
“This was why they wanted the committee in the first place: to find a new way to rename it, without saying that they were erasing last year,” she said.
Ceballo-Countryman is not the only student who thinks Salovey established the committee in order to reverse the original Calhoun decision. Nine of 10 students interviewed by the News expressed skepticism about the committee’s project, and five of the nine said they believe Salovey set up the committee specifically to rename Calhoun.
“I’m afraid that they’re starting the whole process with the idea that they want to change the name Calhoun, and they’re developing the process to get to that,” said Kevin Olteanu ’19.
Other students said they found it odd that the University established a renaming committee so soon after administrators decided to keep the Calhoun name. One student said that a decision to change Calhoun now would be “pandering” to student demands.
Political science professor Steven Smith said he shares the view that Salovey established the committee in order to reverse the April naming decision. Smith called the renaming of Calhoun “a virtual certainty.”
“The creation of the renaming committee was an attempt to give cover and to provide a rationale for changing the Calhoun name,” Smith said.
The committee is scheduled to submit a report outlining the renaming principles by the end of November, according to law professor and renaming committee chair John Witt ’94 LAW ’99 GRD ’00. The decision to keep or change Calhoun based on those principles will lie with Salovey and the Yale Corporation, not the members of the committee.
Larry Fulton ’19, who has met privately with committee members, said that while he understands students’ concerns, he believes the committee is genuinely dedicated to crafting objective renaming guidelines.
“Once you meet with the committee, talk with the committee, it becomes very, very evident to people who engage with the committee that they’re trying to set up a list of guidelines or questions that need to be answered before a building is renamed,” Fulton said.
Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway, who serves on the committee, called the group “a representation of what universities do best.”
“I can’t control what people think of the politics of why the committee was started or what its agenda happens to be,” Holloway said.
Asked to respond to student concerns, Salovey referred to his August email to the Yale community in which he wrote that the committee’s role is to develop “clearly delineated principles” on decisions to retain or remove names from University buildings and spaces.
“After these principles have been articulated and disseminated, we will be able to hold requests for the removal of a historical name — including that of John C. Calhoun [class of 1804] — up to them,” Salovey wrote in the email.
On Tuesday, Witt and three other committee members — history professor Beverly Gage ’94, economics professor Sharon Oster and Yale communications official Lalani Perry — gathered in Woolsey Hall to meet with members of Yale’s blue-collar workforce.
Witt organized the event in order to gather input from Yale Hospitality employees, many of whom signed the petition demanding that Salovey appoint a blue-collar representative to the committee. He asked Associate Vice President of Yale Hospitality Rafi Taherian to distribute promotional fliers to dining hall staff, and scheduled the meeting in the early afternoon, when many dining hall workers are on break.
Still, in the first hour of the session, only one worker arrived to speak: Shirley Lawrence, the employee nominated in the petition to be the blue-collar representative on the committee. Over the course of 20 minutes, Lawrence said that Witt’s fliers — which invited workers to “share their views” at the meeting and on a telephone line — were insulting, and that many dining hall workers do not have time to attend listening sessions, even during their breaks.
“The tone of the [flier] was just disrespectful,” Lawrence said. “You tell people, ‘Thanks for showing interest, just call and leave a message.’”
After she spoke, Witt and the other committee members asked Lawrence to suggest other ways the committee could solicit input from dining hall workers. She was unmoved.
“The level of disrespect and exclusion is so overwhelming that I’m at a loss for words,” Lawrence said. “The history of slavery is in our face every day, and we’re reminded in more ways than one where we come from. Nobody ever thought of a whole group of people, who it’s going to effect.”
After Lawrence left the room, Witt told the News he was grateful for her thoughts. Four other blue-collar workers attended the remainder of the session.
Support for blue-collar representation on the committee is not confined to Yale Hospitality employees. More than 700 students and alumni signed the petition calling for Lawrence to be appointed to the committee.
In response to the petition to add a blue-collar representative to the committee, Salovey told the News that he has “great respect for all of Yale’s staff members,” and said that is why he appointed Lalani Perry, a “staff representative” to the committee. However, Perry is a human resources communications director, and not a blue-collar worker.
“The group we have in place was never meant to represent any perceived ‘constituencies,’” Salovey said in an email Wednesday night. “I do not think of us as segmented, or divided — we are a pluralistic community united by a shared mission.”
A WORN-OUT DEBATE
As the Calhoun discussion enters its second year, students interviewed said they are growing increasingly tired of discussing the topic.
Last spring, students criticized the University for waiting until April to settle the debates over Calhoun and the title “master,” given that administrators at Princeton and Harvard settled comparable naming decisions in less than six months.
Over the summer, the Calhoun naming debate was briefly reenergized after an African-American cafeteria worker named Corey Menafee smashed a window panel in the Calhoun dining hall that depicted a slave. A group of New Haven activists has regularly gathered outside Calhoun to protest the college name since the Menafee incident became public.
In the petition, Yale’s blue-collar workers argued that Menafee’s actions demonstrated the profound effect that the University’s April naming decisions had on Yale employees.
But now that Menafee — who was initially charged with a felony by the Yale Police Department and resigned — has returned to his job at Yale, student interest in the Calhoun debate has faded.
“We have had a whole year and more of this naming debate,” said Sarika Pandrangi ’17, former president of the Calhoun College Council, at the Calhoun listening session in September. “For us, it’s a little tiring.”
Trevor Williams ’17 said he too has noticed that students are tired of the Calhoun conversation, adding that while he would be happy to see the name removed from the college, there are more important issues for Yale students to address.
It remains unclear precisely when Yale administrators will apply the committee’s principles to the Calhoun decision once they are released. At the Calhoun listening session, Witt speculated that after the committee submits its report, the actual naming decision “could conceivably be a very long process.”
But for students, another round of debate about the Calhoun name is an exhausting prospect.
“It’s just no longer at the front of people’s minds,” Fulton said. “At this point, it’s an entirely academic conversation. There’s no more tension, there are many fewer people who are protesting about it, fewer people are developing stress and anxiety and depression. It’s not happening anymore. The longer you extend this conversation — at the end of the day, no matter what happens, two years from now, Calhoun will just be two syllables. It’s just two random syllables.”