December 2, 2016
At Earlham, a prominent building is called Carpenter Hall, but almost no one remembers who Carpenter was. And that’s so for most buildings on campuses all across the United States. But sometimes it does matter, as it does at Yale with Calhoun College.
When I was a graduate student at Yale, I had friends who lived in Calhoun, one of Yale’s residential colleges for undergraduates. I didn’t think much about the name. It was only later that I read Calhoun and realized what a critical intellectual spokesperson he was for slavery. In recent years, Yale has come under pressure to remove Calhoun’s name and replace it with something more suitable. Last April, Yale President Peter Salovey announced Calhoun’s name would stay put. Renaming Calhoun College could have the effect of hiding the legacy of slavery, he argued. “More than a decision about a name, we must focus on understanding the past and present, and preparing our students for the future,” he added. No doubt he also worried that if Yale removed Calhoun’s name, there would be calls to change the name of other Yale buildings
But still there was clamoring to remove Calhoun’s name.
Salovey appointed a committee–The Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming–to come up with a procedure and some guiding principles to consider proposals to remove a historical name from a campus building, space, or structure. That committee has now made its report, and Salovey and the Yale Corporation (Yale’s governing board) have approved it.
It’s a terrific report. It says that there should be a presumption against renaming, but it does acknowledge that there may be circumstances when name removal or change is appropriate. And it puts forward a series of questions (the Quaker in me wants to say queries) to be asked in considering such proposals. For example: “Is a principal legacy of the namesake fundamentally at odds with the mission of the University?” and “Was the relevant principal legacy significantly contested in the time and place in which the namesake lived?”
These questions don’t draw bright lines, but taken together they do lift up the questions and considerations that ought to come into play in making renaming decisions.
So will Calhoun College be renamed? Given what the report reminds us about Calhoun, I’d say that is a likely upshot. But there will be another committee that uses the new principles/questions to make a recommendation about that specific issue. In early 2017.