Ten months ago, Yale University officials declined to rename the residential college named for John C. Calhoun, a 19th-century Yale graduate who became a U.S. senator from South Carolina, vice president, and a prominent defender of slavery. But on Saturday, in a reversal, the university announced that the college will be renamed for Grace Murray Hopper, a renowned computer scientist and Navy admiral who received her master’s degree and Ph.D. from Yale in the 1930s.
The decision was made Friday by the Yale Corporation, the university’s governing board. University officials wouldn’t say whether the board’s vote had been unanimous, because the corporation’s votes are confidential.
While campus buildings should only be renamed in exceptional circumstances, said Peter Salovey, Yale’s president, Calhoun College ultimately met the institution’s newly crafted criteria for such a change.
The new name will take effect by the next academic year, though probably earlier, Mr. Salovey said. Hopper, who died in 1992, was picked from a short list of candidates that the corporation considered during its regularly scheduled meeting.
Calhoun College has been the subject of criticism for decades. The discussion has grown more heated since the fall of 2015, when student activists demanded that the name be changed, arguing that Yale shouldn’t continue to honor a man who espoused racist and white-supremacist views.
The debate at Yale came as several other institutions, including Princeton University, also faced protests over the legacy of controversial historical figures on campus. Princeton officials declined to strip Woodrow Wilson’s name from its public- and international-affairs school last year, but they removed a mural depicting him from a campus dining hall.
In April, Mr. Salovey announced that Calhoun College would keep its name, saying that Yale had a responsibility to turn Calhoun’s legacy into a teaching moment. He also said that removing the name could amount to erasing history. “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,” he said at the time.
But Mr. Salovey struck a noticeably different tone on Saturday. Renaming the college “is the right thing to do on principle,” he said in a conference call with reporters. “John C. Calhoun’s principles, and his legacy as an ardent supporter of slavery as a positive good, are at odds with the values of this university,” he said.
For Jonathan Holloway, dean of Yale’s undergraduate college, a key turning point in the renaming debate was an anti-Calhoun petition signed by more than half of the university’s arts-and-sciences faculty. “What the petition really sparked was a moment of profound clarity that, whether they liked the decision or not to keep the name of Calhoun, they did not like the fact that the process behind the decision was opaque,” Mr. Holloway said in an interview.
Signs of a possible reversal first surfaced in August, when Mr. Salovey said the decision to keep Calhoun’s name was not final. He formed a committee of students, faculty members, and alumni to establish guidelines on renaming campus buildings. A report outlining the committee’s recommendations was released in December.
That transparent and scholarly approach, Mr. Holloway said, “is what we should have been doing in the first place.”
A three-member advisory panel — two Yale faculty members and a 1964 alumnus of Calhoun — then applied the new principles to the college’s name and recommended to Mr. Salovey that it be changed. The panel members wrote in an eight-page report that Calhoun’s “principal legacy” was fundamentally at odds with the university’s mission and noted that Calhoun had not made significant contributions to Yale beyond his time as a student.
Their explanation satisfied Mr. Salovey. He also praised the committee’s guidelines, saying he hoped they would become a model for other colleges grappling with building-name debates. “They came up with a way — both by creating a strong presumption against renaming and then creating a set of principles that have to do with the fundamental legacy of someone and what they believed in their time, in the time of the naming, and now — that I think respects history,” he said.
Yale officials removed three portraits of Calhoun from the residential college a year ago. Officials also took out a stained glass window that depicted slaves after an African-American dining-hall employee purposely shattered it.
But Calhoun’s name will not be entirely scrubbed from campus, university officials stressed. It will remain engraved in some places within the college and will be represented elsewhere at Yale.
Officials said they would soon consult with Yale scholars about how to best represent the 86-year history of the college as Calhoun, and suggested that there may be efforts to contextualize the iconography of Calhoun that remains on campus.Return to Top