Calhoun Lives: Yale Rejects Activist Push To Rename College

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Blake Neff Reporter
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Yale University has decided it will not rename a college named for an ardent defender of slavery, rejecting the demands of activists who insisted the name had to go. As a consolation prize, though, the school will name a new college after a black alumnus, and will also eliminate the title of “master.”

Calhoun College has been one of Yale’s residential colleges since 1933, and is named for John C. Calhoun, a Yale alumnus who was also a major American statesman in the period before the Civil War. Most notably, Calhoun was a senator from South Carolina who strongly defended slavery as a positive good and advocated for a very limited federal government.

There have been calls to rename the college for years, but they were given new vigor in 2015, when the murder of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina sparked a backlash against symbols and memorials associated with the Confederate States of America. Activists at Yale began to push for Yale to rename the college, and also called for Yale to alter the “master” title given to the heads of residential colleges, on the grounds that it evoked slavery and was offensive to black students.

Now, after months of quiet consideration, Yale has returned its verdict: Calhoun will stay, but “master” will go. Henceforth, the leaders of residential colleges will simply be called “heads.” The move was first announced in a report by the Yale Daily News, and was confirmed in a series of tweets by the school.

In a statement sent to campus and published in the New Haven Register, Yale president Peter Salovey said it would clash with Yale’s motto of “Light and Truth” to simply obscure Calhoun’s legacy by renaming the school.

“After a careful review of student and alumni responses, scholarly views, and public commentary — which were exceptionally thoughtful, measured, and helpful on all aspects of the question — it became evident that renaming could have the opposite effect of the one intended,” Salovey said. “Removing Calhoun’s name obscures the legacy of slavery rather than addressing it.”

The school also announced that two new residential colleges it is opening will be named for Benjamin Franklin and Anna Pauline Murray. Franklin has no direct connection to Yale but is a personal hero of billionaire Charles B. Johnson, who donated millions for the construction of the new colleges. Murray, a graduate of Yale Law School, was a civil rights activist and later an Episcopal priest.

The use of the “master” title in an academic context has occurred for hundreds of years and is unrelated to its use with slaveowners, but that hasn’t stopped it from attracting strong denunciations.

Yale’s decision to stick with Calhoun comes a few weeks after a similar decision at Princeton University. There, administrators defied the demands of activists who wanted to rename the university’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs because of Wilson’s racial views.

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