Yale Retains Calhoun Name

A residential college will still feature name of leading advocate for slavery. But university will drop use of "master" to describe those who lead residential colleges.

April 28, 2016
John C. Calhoun

Yale University announced Wednesday that it will keep John C. Calhoun's name on one of its residential colleges. The announcement follows much campus debate, with critics saying that it was inappropriate to honor a man who was one of the leading advocates in Congress for slavery in the United States.

At the same time, Yale announced that it would follow the lead of other colleges in ending use of the term "master" to describe those who lead residential colleges. Going forward, those in the position will be called "head of college."

During last semester's wave of student protests, Yale experienced numerous complaints both about the Calhoun name and the term "master." While the Calhoun name has surfaced as an issue previously, this time it was subject to a lengthy study.

A statement from Yale Thursday night, announcing the decision, said that "it became evident that renaming Calhoun College could have the effect of hiding the legacy of slavery."

Yale President Peter Salovey was quoted in the statement as saying, “Ours is a nation that often refuses to face its own history of slavery and racism. Yale is part of that history. We cannot erase American history but we can confront it, teach it, and learn from it. The decision to retain Calhoun College’s name reflects the importance of this vital educational imperative.”

While Yale is keeping the name, the university pledged to do more to put the Calhoun name and the history of the man in context.

"To ensure a deeper, more consistent and more explicit understanding of Yale’s institutional history, the university will initiate a historical study, beginning with an examination of the legacy of John C. Calhoun," the university statement said. "The project will draw on the talents of Yale’s scholars, students and staff, and will be designed to illuminate the lesser-known people, events and narratives behind the familiar facades seen on campus. The study will enable students and scholars to understand not only those aspects of the university’s -- and our nation’s -- history that are a source of pride, but also those that are shameful and, therefore, essential to know and confront."

In addition, Yale announced that it would hold a juried competition for everyone tied to Yale "to select a work of public art that will be displayed permanently on the grounds of Calhoun College. Entrants will be asked to propose works that respond to the realities and consequences of Calhoun’s life and time, and will be encouraged to give the widest possible consideration to different creative approaches."

Yale's approach of keeping the Calhoun name but promising additional context is very similar to an approach taken by Princeton University this month with regard to the Woodrow Wilson name on its school of public affairs. Many students, citing Wilson's deeply bigoted views -- on which he acted as president to limit the rights of black people -- said that the name was inappropriate.

Other universities, however, have changed names of building and colleges that honor people with racist histories. The University of Texas at Austin changed the name of a dormitory that honored a man who was a leader of the Ku Klux Klan. The University of North Carolina at Greensboro and Duke University dropped the name of Charles B. Aycock, a white supremacist governor of North Carolina in the early 20th century, from campus buildings.

The 'Master' Title

Princeton and other universities acted quickly on the "master" title last year, retiring it -- even as many noted that the term predated American slavery (or America, for that matter).

Yale's announcement noted the history of the word, and said that didn't negate the pain it can cause.

"The use of 'master' as a title at Yale is a legacy of the college system at Oxford and Cambridge. The term derives from the Latin magister, meaning 'chief, head, director, teacher,' and it appears in the titles of university degrees (e.g., master of arts and master of science) and in many aspects of the larger culture (e.g., master craftsman, master builder)," the Yale statement said. "Some members of the Yale community argued that discarding the term 'master' would interject into an ancient collegiate tradition a racial narrative that has never been associated with its use in the academy. Others maintained that regardless of its history in the academy, the title -- especially when applied to an authority figure -- carries a painful and unwelcome connotation that can be difficult or impossible for some students and residential college staff to ignore."

Yale's statement went on: "The current masters themselves no longer felt it appropriate to be addressed in this way, and archival records show that 'head' and 'headship' were placeholders for the title in the university’s original residential college planning documents. Thus, Yale selected 'head of college,' which speaks to the definition and responsibility of the office, as the replacement term. Heads of college will be addressed as professor, doctor, or Mr. or Ms."

Early Reactions

With the announcement coming late in the day Wednesday, it may be early to measure reaction. But on social media, Yale was receiving criticism from those who thought it should have dropped use of Calhoun's name and from people who thought it should have stuck with "master."

Here are some of the comments on Twitter:


On Yale's Facebook page, several alumni said that they thought the university should have done the opposite of what it did -- on both name issues.

But some focused on disagreement over dropping the master title. Asked one critic: "Are we changing the title of the M.A. degree as well? The term 'master' has been part of university life since the 12th century, ridiculous."


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