[Last updated (4/27/2016, 10:19 p.m.) with comments from Peter Salovey, Yale’s president.]
Yale University will retain the name of an undergraduate college that honors John C. Calhoun, an alumnus who served as a U.S. senator and vice president during the 19th century and was a vocal supporter of slavery.
Yale announced its decision and a series of other moves in a news release on Wednesday evening. The university added that it would drop the title of “master” to refer to the leader of each residential college, using the title “head of college” instead. Harvard University recently made a similar change, saying it would refer to faculty members who oversee undergraduate residence halls as “faculty deans.”
The name of Calhoun College, one of Yale’s 12 undergraduate residential colleges, has been especially controversial on the campus in recent months. In January, Yale said it would remove portraits of Calhoun from the college following demands by antiracism protesters at the elite university. Yale is one of several colleges that have recently grappled with their ties to slavery and the legacies of controversial figures who supported it or other shameful practices of the past.
Yale’s decision to turn away from the word “master” but not the Calhoun name was motivated by educational goals, said Peter Salovey, Yale’s president, during a conference call with reporters on Wednesday. “We asked the question, Would changing or altering the name promote teaching and learning, or discourage teaching and learning, about some important issue?” Mr. Salovey said.
In the case of “master,” no educational opportunity was compromised by eliminating the name, he said. And the university’s current residential-college masters had all indicated that they no longer wanted to be addressed by that title.
Calhoun’s name, however, has educational value, Mr. Salovey said. “Teaching it, confronting it, and using it as a guide for thinking about present issues having to do with racism and a better future strongly outweigh changing a name and no longer having this salient reminder of the stain of slavery on our nation’s history and our own university’s participation in it,” he said.
He said the university would soon begin a long-term historical study of names and spaces associated with the campus, starting with Calhoun, and would commission an artwork for the campus that “confronts Calhoun’s legacy and responds to the realities of his life.”
‘The Pain of the Past’
Mr. Salovey acknowledged that many students wanted Calhoun’s name removed from the building. More than half of the 1,700 students who responded to a survey conducted by the Yale Daily News, the campus newspaper, supported renaming Calhoun College. (Fewer than half thought the university should discontinue the use of “master.”) Mr. Salovey said he would hold a series of open forums to discuss the decision with students.
“But at the end of the day, it’s not really a question of public opinion,” Mr. Salovey said. “It’s a question of what’s the right decision for the university.” He added: “One has to remember that, in a university founded in 1701, Calhoun College is not the only space named for someone who owned slaves.”
A reporter asked Mr. Salovey what he would say to a minority student living in Calhoun College who found the name offensive and a hindrance to his or her ability to learn. Mr. Salovey said he had recently talked about that possibility with Henry Louis Gates Jr., a professor at Harvard and director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research there. Mr. Gates attended Yale as an undergraduate and lived in Calhoun College.
“He wrote to me about waking up every morning and thinking to himself, What can we do today to prove John C. Calhoun wrong in his views of African-Americans?” Mr. Salovey said. The name “was a source of inspiration,” he said.
Ultimately, retaining names like Calhoun’s starts essential discussions, Mr. Salovey said. “Our country tends to avoid the pain of the past,” he said. “We’ve never really had the conversation about slavery and racism with ourselves as a country that I think we should.”
Yale also identified the individuals for whom its two newest residential colleges, set to open next year, will be named. They are Anna Pauline (Pauli) Murray, a black woman who graduated from Yale’s law school in 1965 and was known as a champion of the rights of women and minorities, and Benjamin Franklin, the founding father, who received an honorary degree from the university in 1753.
Mr. Salovey said the impetus for naming a college for Mr. Franklin originally came from Charles B. Johnson, a Yale alumnus who gave $250 million to the university in 2013 — the largest single gift ever received by Yale. Mr. Johnson suggested, but did not require, that Yale have a Franklin College, Mr. Salovey said.
Nick DeSantis contributed to this report.