Student Life Column

Yale rightfully renames college dedicated to white supremacist, but decision was more complicated than it seems

Yale University recently made the decision to rename a building on its campus that was originally dedicated to John Calhoun, a Yale alumnus who was a staunch slavery supporter and the seventh vice president of the United States. The name change draws into question a university’s struggle to preserve or revise its history, but ultimately the choice to rename the college was in Yale’s best interest.

Calhoun College, a residential college for undergraduate Yale students, will now be named after Grace Murray Hopper, an alumna and notable computer scientist. Yale President Peter Salovey asked a Yale committee to guide the university in deciding whether Calhoun College should be renamed. The committee analyzed whether Calhoun’s legacy was at odds with Yale’s mission and whether his legacy was contested at the time the college was named.

The previous spring, Salovey had said he did not want to rename the college because he “did not want to erase history, but confront it and learn from it,” according to The Washington Post, but the committee’s report apparently changed his mind.

The decision to change Calhoun College’s name was the right one because it’s based on both the current climate at Yale and the fractured regard for Calhoun’s legacy that dates to the 1930s. But the decision was complicated, and though it can be easy for students to simply say “change it,” the matter gets complicated when it comes to the college’s identity. Say this were to happen with a name as prolific as Newhouse or Whitman. Would the Syracuse University community turn around and dismiss all that those institutions have stood for in the past?

It’s a balance between whether history or the present campus environment gauges a university’s ideological climate. Whether an institution is bound by its past and if that past should be celebrated can certainly be drawn into question.

“The attachment to a residential college can run as deep as the attachment to the institution as a whole,” said Grant Reeher, a professor of political science at Syracuse University and a Yale alumnus.

Many alumni, Reeher said, hold a strong connection to Calhoun College. As stipulated by the Yale committee’s letter, two-thirds of the 350 alumni polled originally sided with keeping the name.

A similar debate sprouted up at the University of Michigan last year over the institution’s Winchell House, a residence hall. Interestingly enough, the namesake for the building, Alexander Winchell, was the first chancellor at SU. Winchell was a white supremacist, and even today his book, “Proof of Negro Inferiority,” is printed on notable supremacist websites like Stormfront.

Although nothing in Winchell’s name stands at SU currently — the Winchell Dormitory was demolished to build Schine Student Center back in 1984 — he and other questionable university leaders remain emblazoned across colleges and universities. And even though the new Yale college dedicatee will have Hopper’s name added to the building at the beginning of the 2017-18 academic year, Calhoun’s name will remain carved on the building.

There is a fear that namesake changes will bring erasure, the dismissal of history and what it stood for. The legacy of an individual or a college’s name holds weight, especially at preeminent universities today. A pillar of SU’s mission is to take pride in its history for access, engagement, innovation and impact, and the university has a careful balance between valuing where it has been and reclaiming where it can go.

Yale’s administration did an extensive review to assure the name change decision was rooted in not just its present campus climate, but also in archival research. Not all relevant names need to be changed simply because their legacy may become irrelevant today. It will be of continued interest for students and faculty alike to bridge between valuing history and adapting for the future.

Brendan Germain is a senior television, radio and film major and French minor. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bngermai@syr.edu.

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