A diversity of opinions and hopes shared in campus listening sessions

Members of the Yale community shared their opinions and ideas about the renaming of Calhoun College and the naming of the two new residential colleges during four listening sessions held on campus Jan. 28 and Jan. 29.

The listening sessions were hosted by Margaret Marshall ’76 J.D., senior fellow of the Yale Corporation and retired chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. They gave current students, alumni, faculty, and staff the opportunity have a voice in the debate over whether to rename Calhoun College — named after American politician and political philosopher John C. Calhoun, who was an ardent proponent of slavery — and for discussion of possible names for the two residential colleges under construction. Eve Hart Rice ’73, an alumni fellow and the Yale Corporation’s newest member, also attended the sessions, and trustee Donna Dubinsky listened in on the final session via teleconference call. Altogether about 200 Yale affiliates attended the sessions.

Marshall will share participants’ thoughts and ideas with the other members of the Yale Corporation, which has final jurisdiction over the naming of colleges.

The majority of participants were in favor of renaming Calhoun College. A smaller percentage of those in favor of a new name support a hyphenated name that still allows for inclusion of the current one. Attendees shared numerous ideas about names for the new colleges, with the majority advocating naming them in honor of noted alumni or other American leaders who are persons of color or are women.

What follows is a summary of just some of the thoughts shared during the listening sessions.

A whole new name

Honor the good, not the “abhorrent”:  The first listening session was held for students in Calhoun College, and was attended by some 35 undergraduates in Rose Alumni House. Only one student who spoke at the session objected to a name change, while the rest of the students showed their support for renaming the college in memory of Roosevelt L. Thompson, a member of the Class of 1984 who died in a car accident shortly before graduation. The highly accomplished African American student — himself a member of Calhoun College — was a Rhodes Scholar, a member of the Yale football team, a president of the Calhoun College Student Council, and a tutor of New Haven schoolchildren. Thompson had also worked on President Bill Clinton’s gubernatorial campaign.

Many of the students at the Calhoun College session sat around the table with roses before them, marking both their support for having their college named in Thompson’s memory and to mark what would have been his 54th birthday on Jan. 28.

Some of the undergraduates at the session said they had heard about Thompson from a parent or friend who had been his classmate. They cited Thompson’s scholastic achievements, commitment to public service, and his “promise” as reasons for naming their college in his memory.

“He is a shining example of what Yale students can be,” said one undergraduate.

Another said that naming the college after someone with Thompson’s accomplishments would show young black students “that Yale can be a place for us.”

Not feeling “at home”: Students voiced personal anguish over the name of Calhoun College at both that session and a second one in Rose Alumni House for student members of the Afro-American Cultural Center, the Native American Cultural Center, the Asian American Cultural Center, and La Casa Cultural.

One upperclassman affiliated with the Native American Cultural Center said she was told by many Calhoun College freshmen that they did not feel connected to the college because of its name. “I love Calhoun,” said the student. “To hear that our freshmen did not feel rooted really disturbed me.”

Said another undergraduate: “We are not thinking about renaming a class building. This is people’s home. [John] Calhoun is in every history book, but I have friends who live under his name. His name above their entryway should not being getting in the way of their lives here.” A number of freshmen from Calhoun College said that they felt the name is such an affront to African American students that they choose to spend most of their time away from their college.

“It is for current students for whom this question of renaming the college is the most important,” said one student. “We live here. … We are still forming our memories here. There is no reason to go to Calhoun College right now if you are black and not a ‘Hounie.’ I have friends who won’t come to my dining hall. The name of the college brings on absolute discomfort and pain and aversion.”

One African American student said of his college’s namesake, “This guy would have hated me. To see his name glorified — I don’t know how that’s defensible.”

A counterargument: Students also argued that changing the name would not be an “erasure” of history — which some have cited as a reason not to rename Calhoun College.

One student said that as an increasingly diverse place and a “living body,” Yale must change with the times. “If you refuse to acknowledge what’s happening in the world,” you become irrelevant,” she said, later adding, “We are trying to create a better Yale for all of us.”

“The act of changing the name would be the start of erecting a history that is different,” agreed another undergraduate.

Many called for utilizing spaces both within Calhoun College and at other campus locations to teach the entire legacy of John Calhoun. They suggested plaques, portraits with descriptive text, and exhibits as way to educate members of the university community and visitors about the historical figure.

An issue that stretches beyond:  In the evening session for the Yale community in the Law School’s Levinson Auditorium, a graduate student said that the protests by students of color about discrimination on campus touched her heart. “People all over the world are interested in the name change issue who aren’t even connected to Yale. Yale, as a world-renowned university, can be a leading force in the world. … Now is the time for that to happen.”

An undergraduate from southern Africa pointed out in one session that the names of memorials, places, and monuments in South Africa were changed in the post-apartheid era because they were deemed offensive to those who had been oppressed. He said that for those who witness that change, there is power in replacing one symbol for another, and that such changes can come while also acknowledging the past.

Attendees noted that Yale is among numerous universities considering whether to change the names of schools or buildings that honor those who have views or beliefs that are now considered offensive.

Renaming the college is a gesture that is not only significant for current students, but would also impact prospective Yale students, some said. “It makes a statement that might draw students to Yale from all over the world who might not otherwise apply.”

Keep the name

 The one Calhoun College student who argued against renaming his college said that while he thinks that John Calhoun’s views about slavery are abhorrent and has never met anyone at Yale who disagrees with that sentiment, he feared that changing the name would “inculcate the vice of irreverence for tradition.”

“We are all invariably shaped by and in dialog with different traditions,” said the student, who argued that Yale students are trained to become “great leaders” and have both a “responsibility and a privilege to make good” in their community and the world, without allowing a symbol  — such as the college’s name — to have power over them.

Don’t erase, but learn: At one of the community sessions, a faculty member said that while he is “instinctively against the removal of the past,” he believes that the conversation about the renaming of Calhoun College has gone on for too long. If the name is not changed, “let’s learn from it” by way of studying and exploring John Calhoun’s legacy, he argued.

Supporting that view was a Yale staff member who said that the Yale community now has the opportunity to honor worthy persons in the naming of the two new residential colleges, but that Calhoun’s name should be retained.

“We can learn from our mistakes and educate,” she said. “We can’t just erase things that make us uncomfortable.”

The name is not the community: Another Yale faculty member and Calhoun College alumnus said that most former and current members of the residential colleges do not connect themselves in any way with the college’s namesake.

“We are ‘Hounies’ — we are not the sons and daughters of John Calhoun,” he said. He added, however, that he is grateful that the portraits of John Calhoun were recently taken down in the college.

Being consistent: A couple of students argued that it would be “inconsistent” to remove John Calhoun’s name without also considering the legacies of other historical figures memorialized at Yale. One said that 13 years after Calhoun’s death, Samuel Morse (for whom another residential college is named), wrote a book about the benefits of slavery.

“If we remove Calhoun’s name without investigating others memorialized here, we are using Calhoun as a scapegoat,” said an undergraduate.

A compromise: hyphenation

At the two public listening sessions, an equal number of attendees argued for and against a new hyphenated name for Calhoun, such as Calhoun-Douglass (after abolitionist Frederick Douglass) College.

“You can’t read one without reading the other,” stated one student about that particular option.

“A hyphenated name allows us to keep tradition and not erase history but think about who we would prefer to memorialize,” said another student.

Others said it would be a respectful solution because it would allow previous graduates of Calhoun College to retain a part of their own history. However, others objected to this option, saying that it gives equal weight to offense and honor.

“If we do change the name, it should be total and complete,” said one student. “ It would otherwise be a slap in the face to students of color and alumni of color.”

Naming the new

Most attendees focused their comments on the naming of the new residential colleges. (See the sidebar below for the names of individuals that speakers suggested that the new colleges — or a renamed Calhoun College — commemorate.)

Some at the listening sessions said that whoever is commemorated in new names, it is essential that persons of color and women be represented.

“We need to consider race and gender as incredibly consequential categories,” said an alumna of the university.

“I hope women and people of color will be considered,” agreed a staff member. “It would be wrong to ignore our richness and diversity here.”

“If [both the new residential colleges] are not named after women or people of color, it would be an absolute failure,” stated an undergraduate.

Grateful for the conversation

At the public sessions, a number of faculty and staff members, as well as students, remarked that they are grateful that the conversation about the possible renaming of Calhoun College and the naming of the new residential colleges is taking place.

“I have heard so many perspectives,” said a Yale College sophomore about the session she attended. “I’ve been so inspired by recent months on campus, seeing students of color advocate for themselves. … This is far more than a personal issue. … We aren’t talking about the past. Racism is present and alive.”

A student from the School of Management (SOM) commented that he was “energized” by the conversation. “I’m inspired,” he said. “It’s exciting what I’ve learned by being here. It gives me hope. We’re having similar talks at SOM. Before SOM, I spent four years living in a country where talks like this were not allowed, even at top universities. It provides a sense of comfort that we can talk about these tough issues, and I am confident that with the bright minds of this university, the right decision will be made.”

At the sessions, Marshall stressed that she and Rice wanted to listen only, and she thanked all of the attendees for sharing openly at the events.

“I know how difficult it is to speak for some of you,” she said at one of the sessions, adding later: “Who knows what will come from this conversation, but you have started a ripple effect, not just here but in the wider community.”

In their freshmen addresses, President Peter Salovey and Yale College Jonathan Holloway invited all members of the Yale community to share their thoughts about the renaming of Calhoun College on an Open Conversation website, and members of the Calhoun College community were surveyed about the issue in December.

Who should the new residential colleges — or a renamed Calhoun College — commemorate?  

Attendees at the listening sessions suggested that the following individuals — all with ties to Yale — be honored when naming the new residential colleges or renaming Calhoun College. These names were suggested in addition to Roosevelt Thompson ’84 and abolitionist Frederick Douglass (See story above).

 • Cole Porter (after the famed composer and 1913 graduate of Yale College);

 • Grace Hopper, a noted computer scientist and U.S. Navy rear admiral who earned her Ph.D. from the university in 1934);

 • Edward Bouchet, a physicist and New Haven native who graduated from Yale College in 1874 and became the first African American to earn a doctorate in the United States when Yale awarded him a Ph.D. in 1876;

 • Henry Roe Cloud, an educator, government official, and reformer who became the first full-blooded Native American to graduate from Yale, where he earned his B.A. in 1910 and an M.A. in anthropology in 1914);

 • Dean Acheson, an American statesman and lawyer who graduated from Yale in 1915;

 • Alice Rufie Jordan, a lawyer and first female graduate of Yale Law School (1886 L.L.B.);

Richard Henry Green, a doctor and Civil War assistant surgeon who was Yale College’s first African-American graduate (Yale Class of 1857);

 • Harvey Cushing, often called “the father of modern neurosurgery,” who graduated from Yale College in 1891;

 • Sylvia Ardyn Boone, a scholar of African and women’s art who was the first African-American woman granted tenure at Yale (in 1988).

Josiah Willard Gibbs, an American scientist and Yale faculty member who in 1863 became the first to earn a Ph.D. in engineering at the university; and

James W.C. Pennington, an escaped slave who became an American orator, minister, and abolitionist and unofficially attended Yale Divinity School (he was refused official course credits at the time because of his race).

Media Contact

Susan Gonzalez: susan.gonzalez@yale.edu,