After more than a year of student protests highlighting racial injustice on the campus, Yale University announced today via a statement by President Peter Salovey that the school will formally consider a proposal to rename Calhoun College. The Residential College was named in 1933 for John C. Calhoun, a Yale alumnus who went on to become the seventh vice president of the United States and one of the most prominent pro-slavery advocates of his time.
The original decision to name Yale’s newest Residential College was met with muted concern in 1933, and the unease has continued in the intervening decades. Beginning last year, that concern erupted into sustained mass protest of Calhoun College’s name, which students say either whitewashes over — or even amounts to a celebration of — Calhoun’s pro-slavery viewpoints. The decision over the years to decorate Calhoun College with art objects that reference slavery — including a stained glass image of shackled slaves at Calhoun’s feet, another of slaves picking cotton, and oil paintings that included images of Calhoun with his slaves — only exacerbated the controversy; none of these art pieces currently remain at Calhoun, but some are still on display elsewhere on campus.
Last November, a multiracial coalition of students issued a list of demands to Yale administrators to address racial injustice on campus; the renaming of Calhoun was included alongside calls to improve administrative support for ethnic studies, cultural community centers, and student mental health. A survey of students conducted in April of this year showed that 55% support renaming the College.
Earlier this year, Yale announced their decision to overrule student concerns and to retain Calhoun College’s name, but to drop the traditional “Master” title given to the faculty in charge of each Residential College. Salovey said in his statement to students that he believed that the act of renaming Calhoun College would effectively erase slavery’s history.
Salovey went on to solicit suggestions from students for an art piece about American slavery that would be installed at Calhoun College’s grounds. That announcement was met with significant backlash by Yale community members, including from one faculty member writing for the New York Times who called the decision a “grievous mistake”. Wrote Professor Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore:
Naming a Residential College for John C. Calhoun does little on its face to educate about America’s history with slavery; an easily overlooked public art piece simply does not correct this problem, nor does it provide significant additional educational or conversational context that would offset the choice to retain Calhoun College’s name.
Two months after announcing the decision to retain Calhoun College’s name, Salovey issued a mea culpa to the student body, admitting that the issue had been mishandled. In his email, Salovey wrote:
With that admission of error, Salovey called for the establishment of a committee that included both faculty and students to create a formal policy for consideration of building renaming proposals at Yale. Today, Salovey announced that the Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming had published their final report outlining the school’s new guidelines for renaming requests.
Specifically, the committee said that Yale should have a “strong presumption” against renaming any campus structure of space, particularly when the name has been chosen to honour a person who has made a “major contribution” to the school. However, that “strong presumption” should also be weighed against the following principles:
The committee went on to recommend that renaming is warranted only if one or more of these principles would justify it; and that, even so, renaming may not be required if other factors would outweigh it. Finally, the committee said that renaming requests could be formally submitted by Yale community members, or that it could be independently initiated by the Yale president.
With the committee’s report, President Salovey announced today that he has initiated the process for considering whether Calhoun College should be renamed. In his email, Salovey writes:
A decision about whether Calhoun College will be renamed is expected to be released in early 2017.
The full report from the Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming can be read here.
Correction: An earlier version of this post mistook the original naming of Calhoun. It occurred in 1933, not 1993.
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