Students at Yale University are grappling with issues of history and representation in light of Yale President Peter Salovey’s announcement on Wed., April 27, that the university would not rename Calhoun College, one of the residential colleges on the campus.
According to the Yale Daily News, the university named its residential college after John Caldwell Calhoun, “one of the fiercest advocates of slavery in American history” in 1931. The discussion of the name began in earnest at the start of the academic year, when Salovey used his annual address to first-years to launch an “open conversation” on Calhoun’s legacy and questions of history and symbolism. Racial protests in November, sparked by a series of race-related controversies, reignited the debate, which continued throughout the year. The decision rested in the hands of the Yale Corporation, which chose to retain the name to preserve the institution’s historical memory.
“Removing Calhoun’s name obscures the legacy of slavery rather than addressing it,” Salovey wrote in an all-campus email. “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.”
Students responded with frustration, anger and protest, especially members of the university’s communities of people of color and Calhoun residents.
The Yale Daily News quoted Lindsey Hogg ’17, a Calhoun junior who worked towards a name change and will serve as a counselor to first-years in the college next year.
“I’m going to have this class of freshmen coming in next year, and we’re going to have to welcome them into the Calhoun class of 2020, and I don’t know how to do that,” Hogg told the Daily News. “I would understand if every black student in the class of 2020 who gets placed in Calhoun wants to transfer.”
On Thursday, April 28, Salovey hosted a town hall to hear student reactions to the hugely controversial decision and was greeted by a shower of fake $1 million bills thrown from the balcony of the university’s Battell Chapel by students angered by the university’s perceived inaction. One member of the Yale Black Women’s Coalition wrote on Facebook, “Because Yale doesn’t listen to the voices of people of color but does listen to money #wrongmoveyale.”
On Friday, April 29, about 600 students dressed in black gathered in front of Calhoun College to protest the Corporation’s decision and unofficially rename the college as “the college formerly known as Calhoun.” Students sang, read spoken-word poetry and protested the administration for continuing to enable injustices, referencing the fact that the university is built on stolen Quinnipiac land.
Since the forum, #FormerlyKnownAsCalhoun has spread on Facebook and Twitter among students at Yale and around the country.
In a survey by the Yale Daily News shortly before the decision, 55 percent of students said that Calhoun should be renamed and 45 percent wanted the name “master” rebranded. The survey also polled respondents on the two new residential colleges Yale plans to open in fall 2017 and found that 82 percent of respondents wanted the university to make a concerted effort to name one or both of the colleges after women or people of color.
The dispute over this segment of Yale’s history stems back to 1992, when the College removed a stained-glass panel in the college depicting “a shackled slave kneeling at Calhoun’s feet” after student campaigns.