Yale’s Calhoun College to Keep Racially Charged Name

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Baby steps, Yale.Photo: Christopher Cappozziello/2008 Getty Images

Despite the racially charged student protests that began last fall and continued for several months, administrators at Yale University announced late Wednesday that John C. Calhoun College, a residence hall named for a 19th-century alumnus and slavery apologist, will keep its name. Peter Salovey, the university president, added that the school will drop the title of “master,” which until now has been used to refer to the heads of Yale’s residential communities. What’s more, two new residence halls will be named for Benjamin Franklin and Anna Pauline Murray — Murray will be the first woman and the first African-American with a college at Yale named after her.

The changes, Salovey wrote, are the result of months of "wide-ranging and thoughtful" conversations with "more than 5,000 members of the Yale community." And although he recognized that naming a residence hall after a known white supremacist represented a "troubling aspect" of the school’s past, he wrote that changing the name would blot out history that ought to be remembered.

It became evident that renaming could have the opposite effect of the one intended,” he wrote. “Removing Calhoun’s name obscures the legacy of slavery rather than addressing it.” He went on:

Ours is a nation that continues to refuse to face its own history of slavery and racism. Yale is part of this history, as exemplified by the decision to recognize an ardent defender of slavery by naming a college for him. Erasing Calhoun’s name from a much-beloved residential college risks masking this past, downplaying the lasting effects of slavery, and substituting a false and misleading narrative, albeit one that might allow us to feel complacent or, even, self-congratulatory. Retaining the name forces us to learn anew and confront one of the most disturbing aspects of Yale’s and our nation’s past. I believe this is our obligation as an educational institution.

Like most things at Yale these days, Salovey’s verdict was met with mixed reactions. The Black Student Alliance issued a statement calling the abandonment of the master title and the naming of Murray College “long-overdue first steps towards creating a better and more inclusive Yale.” But the decision to keep Calhoun College’s name is, they said, “a regression.” And Yale sophomore told the Washington Post that falling asleep in her dorm that night would feel “violent.” 

According to the New York Times, some students were also “perplexed” at Salovey’s decision to name one of the dorms after Franklin — a prominent slaveowner. Salovey replied that the name was suggested by Charles B. Johnson, a Yale alumnus who donated $250 million (the largest gift the school has ever received) to pay for the new buildings.

Although changing dorm names and titles might seem minor, keep in mind that Yale didn’t admit female undergraduate students until 1969. Baby steps.