Students Vent Frustrations as Yale Leaves a Slavery Champion’s Name Intact

April 29, 2016

Associated Press
A rear gate at Calhoun College, named for the slavery supporter and vice president John C. Calhoun. Yale U. opted on Wednesday to retain Calhoun’s name on the college, a decision that some students see as a capitulation to deep-pocketed donors.
Yale University’s decision on Wednesday to keep the name of John C. Calhoun, a vocal supporter of slavery, on a residential college touched off a widespread, passionate reaction on a campus that has been roiled by racial tension for much of the academic year.

Most of the response from students on social media seemed negative. But a diversity of views had emerged during a series of forums designed to solicit student feedback on the controversial name, said Kimberly M. Goff-Crews, secretary and vice president for student life, in an interview with The Chronicle.

“If you imagine quite literally living in a college that was named for someone who thought that you were worthless, in an institution that was built on the backs of people who look like you, it's disconcerting.”

"When you look at all of the emails and comments during the listening sessions, there is actually a wide range of opinion on the Calhoun College question," Ms. Goff-Crews said. She believes the university has a critical role to play in "not only confronting this history but engaging students in areas where they might be uncomfortable," she said.

The Calhoun name has certainly made some students uncomfortable. An alumnus who served as vice president of the United States during the 19th century, Calhoun championed slavery as "a positive good" and opposed abolition as a U.S. senator. The university had already removed three of his portraits this year in the face of student protests over the campus’s racial climate.

Akinyi Ochieng, a 2015 Yale graduate, said she had wondered whether Yale officials "were waiting to see what Princeton would do. I think, for Yale, it justified the decision," Ms. Ochieng said. "Princeton kept the name, so why not keep Calhoun College?"

Yale is among dozens of institutions that have recently grappled with the legacy of slaveholders and other controversial historical figures on their campuses. Princeton University decided this month to keep Woodrow Wilson’s name on its public-policy school but approved an educational marker outside the school to elaborate on the former president’s segregationist views.

Yale’s Calhoun announcement came alongside news that the university would drop the title of "master" to refer to the leader of each residential college, using the title "head of college" instead. Peter Salovey, Yale’s president, also said that two new colleges, set to open in 2017, would bear the names of Anna Pauline (Pauli) Murray, a Yale alumna, mixed-race social-justice activist, and lawyer, and Benjamin Franklin, the founding father.

Mr. Salovey held a forum with students on Thursday to discuss the decisions. He was greeted by a shower of fake million-dollar bills, which a handful of students threw into the air to symbolize what they saw as the influence of money on the Calhoun and Franklin decisions. (Mr. Salovey said on Wednesday that Franklin’s name had been suggested by a donor, Charles B. Johnson, who gave $250 million to Yale in 2013 to help pay for the new housing.)

Several students interviewed by The Chronicle thought that the clout of wealthy alumni might have played a pivotal role in preserving Calhoun College’s name. The students’ sense was that many, if not most, alumni didn’t want a name change.

"I expected the alumni and their donations to determine the Calhoun name," said Taylor Buscemi, a sophomore and resident of Calhoun College. "I’m not happy about that, but I’m not surprised."

The alumni factor also helps explain why Yale would stop using "master" but wouldn’t change "Calhoun," said Cole Aronson, a sophomore and also a Calhoun College resident. "There’s a constituency for Calhoun College that there isn’t for the title ‘master’ — generations of Calhoun graduates that probably don’t want the name of the place they lived for four years to be changed," Mr. Aronson said.

Mr. Salovey’s attempts to defend the Calhoun choice during the forum didn’t appear to sit well with many students in attendance.

Mr. Aronson told The Chronicle that he supported keeping the Calhoun name. "You can’t just get rid of everything that you don’t like," he said. Ms. Buscemi, on the other hand, said she was disappointed.

Last fall, when Ms. Buscemi transferred to Yale from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, her views on the Calhoun name weren’t set in stone. She recalled attending an on-campus event in September that delved into the former vice president’s story. "At the time, I was in the middle about it because I’d heard from so many alums who valued the name 'Calhoun,' just because of the memories they have there," she said.

Ms. Buscemi felt that the campus community needed to have a nuanced discussion about Calhoun’s legacy before taking any action. The racial-climate protests in the fall and the ensuing forums and events allowed for just that, she said. "Changing the name ‘Calhoun’ would’ve been such a simple fix," she said. "It would’ve made the Yale student body a lot happier."

That wouldn’t have been the right approach, said Ms. Goff-Crews, the student-life official. "We could’ve taken the easy way out," she said. "But I think this is what an educational institution does: Confront, and continue to confront, the past."

Many students have taken particular issue with Mr. Salovey’s central argument for retaining Calhoun’s name: that it has educational value. "Changing the name ‘Calhoun’ would result in less confrontation with what Calhoun represented and less discussion of who he was and why the building was named for him," Mr. Salovey said on Wednesday.

"Keeping the name 'Calhoun' does not foster learning opportunities," read a Thursday statement from the Black Student Alliance at Yale. "Instead, it only diminishes our ability to combat the heinous nature of slavery and racism."

Ms. Ochieng said Calhoun’s name could serve as a teachable moment. She had supported giving the college a hyphenated name, such as Calhoun-Douglass, which would have simultaneously honored the abolitionist Frederick Douglass. That compromise was also backed by Julia Adams, a sociology professor at Yale who serves as head of Calhoun College. "I do recognize the argument behind not wanting to erase the history," Ms. Ochieng said. "But I think it’s more of a reminder to have it be rechristened in that way."

Still, she questioned how such an educational component would be structured. "Is it going to be something where it’s brought up when every freshmen enters the Calhoun gates?" she asked. "Or is it just going to be some colloquiums or talks that, frankly, might be poorly attended by the student body at large?"

Mr. Salovey said on Wednesday that if a minority student told him that living in Calhoun College was painful and impeded his or her education, the president would encourage that student to see the name as an inspiration to make the world better. Asked to respond, Ms. Ochieng called the president’s justification "shortsighted."

“The idea that it is somehow procedurally wrong or dishonest for the university to not just listen to the students, namely undergraduates, is mystifying. Undergraduates are one of the least-permanent elements of the university community.”

"If you imagine quite literally living in a college that was named for someone who thought that you were worthless, in an institution that was built on the backs of people who look like you, it’s disconcerting," she said.

Ms. Buscemi pointed out that most members of the Yale Corporation, the university's governing board, which made the final call on Calhoun, are white. "It’s sad that, for the corporation that decided to keep the name ‘Calhoun,’" she said, "the viewpoints of all of the students are kind of secondary to the money at hand."

But Mr. Aronson criticized the notion that if a majority of students wanted a name change, the university should have simply made one. "The idea that it is somehow procedurally wrong or dishonest for the university to not just listen to the students, namely undergraduates, is mystifying to me," Mr. Aronson said. "Undergraduates are one of the least-permanent elements of the university community."

Still, many students felt their input should have mattered more in the final decision — especially when the explanation involved "educational opportunities" that some of them doubt. "It’s not like we’re going to forget slavery," Ms. Buscemi said. "Acknowledging that the name needs to change is just more important."

Sarah Brown writes about a range of higher-education topics, including sexual assault, race on campus, and Greek life. Follow her on Twitter @Brown_e_Points, or email her at