Why Yale will not rename Calhoun College

Yale University argues that changing a name does not provide a solution to confront the history of slavery or racism. Other institutions have made similar arguments. 

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters/File
A student walks on the campus of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.

Yale University will keep the name of the college honoring John C. Calhoun, a white supremacist politician and strong proponent of slavery, the university announced Wednesday.

The name has been the subject of controversy as groups of students organized protests challenging the ongoing use of the name, echoing similar student protests challenging other historical monuments and symbols named after historical figures with racist legacies.

John Calhoun – an 1804 graduate of Yale College – was a South Carolina senator and the seventh vice president of the United States, best known for promoting slavery as a public good. Longstanding calls to rename the college reached fever pitch after a 21-year-old white supremacist killed nine African Americans attending a Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.

About a block from where the murders took place, an 80-foot-tall statue of Mr. Calhoun overlooks Calhoun Street.

Yale's president, Peter Salovey, said that renaming the college would "downplay" the evils of slavery and racism.

“Ours is a nation that continues to refuse to face its own history of slavery and racism,” President Salovey said in a statement. “Yale is part of this history, as exemplified by the decision to recognize an ardent defender of slavery by naming a college for him."

He continued, "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.”

The decision to keep the name follows a similar pattern seen at other institutions that have decided to keep racially charged names, including Princeton and Oxford Universities. Both schools have faced mounting pressure from students who see certain names as constant reminders of the racial injustice that black people have experienced, as one student said during an on-campus discussion.

Princeton’s board of trustees announced earlier this month that Woodrow Wilson’s name would stay on its school of public and international affairs, though they did remove a wall-size photograph of the 28th president from a dining hall. And in January, Oxford University said that they will keep using the name of the British imperialist Cecil Rhodes as a reminder of the legacies of colonialism.

Other historians agree that renaming isn’t the best way to confront the impacts of slavery or racism.

"When you rename, you facilitate forgetting," Alfred Brophy, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law told The Christian Science Monitor’s Story Hinckley. "Building names are gauges of how we think, but renaming doesn’t solve racism."

Jonathan Holloway, dean of Yale College and a professor of history, American studies, and African American studies, argued in 2014 that the Calhoun name should remain as an “open sore, frankly, for the very purpose of having conversations about this."

He added that in "too many instances ... Americans have very happily allowed themselves to be amnesiac and changed the name of something and walked away."

But Yale officials have agreed to make other changes.

Yale will change the title of “master” – which has been used to refer to faculty members who serve as residential college leaders – to “head of college.” This echoes similar decisions by Princeton and Harvard, which both changed the “master” title to “head of college” and “faculty dean” respectively.

Yale will also name two new residential colleges, currently under construction, after Anna Pauline Murray, a legal scholar and civil rights activist who graduated from Yale Law School in 1965, and Benjamin Franklin, a founding father and 1753 honorary graduate of Yale.

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