USA Education First Look

Why Yale reconsidered Calhoun College’s white supremacist ties

The university announced on Saturday it will rename the residential college, reversing a controversial decision in April. 

A rear gate at Calhoun College, one of Yale's 12 residential colleges for undergraduates. On Saturday, Feb. 11, 2017, Yale University said it is renaming Calhoun College after Grace Hooper, a trailblazing computer scientist, a mathematician who earned Yale degrees in the 1930s, invented a pioneering computer programming language and became a Navy rear admiral.
Bob Child/AP
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Yale University announced on Saturday that a residential college named for a politician remembered for his white supremacist views and promotion of slavery will be renamed. 

On July 1, Calhoun College, one of the university’s 12 residential colleges, will be renamed to honor Yale alumna Grace Murray Hopper, a pioneering mathematician and computer scientist.

The announcement by Yale President Peter Salovey reverses his controversial decision in April not to rename the college. In spite of campus-wide protests over the Calhoun name, Mr. Salovey then said he did not want to erase history, but confront it and learn from it. But a committee subsequently formed to study the debate found otherwise, saying Calhoun College presents “an exceptionally strong case” because its namesake clashes with university values.

Yale is one of a number of academic institutions to brood over how it should confront its past connections to slavery and racism. The issue of Calhoun College had been debated for years. But it and other debates like it on other campuses intensified following a white man shooting in 2015 nine black worshippers  at a church in Charleston, S.C., around the corner from an 80-foot-tall statue of Mr. Calhoun that overlooks Calhoun Street. Other institutions have since replaced shields, renamed halls, and offered preferential admissions status to the descendants of slaves it benefited from.

Calhoun College was named in 1931 for John Calhoun, an 1804 alumnus of Yale who served as a a South Carolina senator, US secretary of state, and secretary of war. Mr. Calhoun was also considered a champion of slavery, promoting it as both a “positive good” that benefited slaves and a necessary pillar of republican institutions, according to the university.

The committee Yale established in August to study renaming Calhoun College established four principles to evaluate the issue: whether the namesake’s main legacy fundamentally conflicts with the university’s mission; whether the principal legacy was contested during the namesake’s lifetime; the reason the university honored that person; and whether the building plays a substantial role in forming community at Yale.

“In considering these principles, it became clear that Calhoun College presents an exceptionally strong case – perhaps uniquely strong – that allows it to overcome the powerful presumption against renaming articulated in the report,” said Salovey, according to a statement. “Unlike other namesakes on our campus, he distinguished himself not in spite of these views but because of them.”

The fact the Calhoun name bedecked a residential college was a major factor in the university’s decision, it said in a statement.

“Honoring a namesake whose legacy so sharply conflicts with the university’s values should weigh especially heavily when the name adorns a residential college, which plays a key role in forming community at Yale,” it said.

Salovey had previously been against renaming the college because of the message about slavery he said it sent both the university and the nation.

“Ours is a nation that continues to refuse to face its own history of slavery and racism,” said Salovey then. "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.”

To ensure this doesn’t happen, the university will move traces of Calhoun to other parts of campus, displaying them with an explanation of historical context, according to the Yale Daily News.

Other colleges have also reevaluated how they deal with their past ties to racism and slavery. Brown University, the College of William and Mary, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill created commissions, built memorials, and funded research projects to open dialogue about the role of slaves in the universities’ histories. Georgetown University even announced it will offer preferential admission treatment to the descendants of the slaves from which it profited.

But other universities have chosen to keep the name of controversial figures and instead contextualize their ties to racism. Princeton, for instance, chose not to remove the name of Woodrow Wilson, instead pledging to be transparent about his support for segregation, as well as his achievements.