Salovey listens to student disappointment over naming decisions

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Students threw fake money from the Battell Chapel balcony to protest the naming of one of the new residential colleges after Benjamin Franklin. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

Yale President Peter Salovey stood before hundreds of students on April 28 at Battell Chapel and engaged in a frank, open, and often impassioned exchange about the university’s decision to retain the name of Calhoun College, as well as other recent naming decisions on campus.

In his opening remarks, Salovey assured the students, many of whom were wearing tape over their mouths in protest, that their opinions were highly valued as the Yale Corporation weighed whether to rename the residential college named after 19th-century American statesman John C. Calhoun, who supported nullification and fervently defended slavery as a “public good.”

“You may feel it didn’t come out the way you wanted to come out, but I want to assure you that you were listened to,” he said.

Salovey announced the Calhoun College decision on April 27, explaining that keeping the name encourages the Yale community to confront the history of slavery, and to teach about that history and its legacy. He simultaneously announced that the university’s two new undergraduate residential colleges, slated to open in 2017, will be named for civil rights activist Pauli Murray, ’65 J.S.D., ’79 Hon. D.Div., and founding father Benjamin Franklin, and that Yale will change the title of “master” to “head of college” in all of the residential colleges.

Salovey said retaining Calhoun’s name ensures that the statesman’s repugnant ideas and legacy and Yale’s decision to name the college after him will be taught and discussed on campus.

“I think the principle should be to reveal, to confront, to teach, discuss, and use what we learned to imagine a different future,” he said. “I’m not interested in hiding that history. Whether it’s the parts of Yale history that we love or the parts that we think are appalling.” 

Salovey said the occasion marks a turning point, and he invited students to join in helping the university uncover and teach the past to right current issues

“Going forward, I hope, even if you’re disappointed in the outcome … that you will engage and that you will help continue to make this place better,” he said.

The first student to speak denounced the Calhoun decision.

“The second that I came on this campus, I was mad that I was in Calhoun College,” said the student, who is black. “I didn’t enjoy it. But you know what? I gritted my teeth and I bore it because that’s what I’ve been trained to do.”

Many student protestors wore tape over their mouths to symbolize their belief that their opinions weren’t being listened to; some also carried Monopoly boards to indicate their belief that choosing to name one of the new colleges after Benjamin Franklin was tied to the $250 million gift to construct the buildings. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

The student said the campus-wide discussions over various issues concerning race last semester, including the naming of the college, had given him hope that things would change.

“We spent the entire year talking to you, bearing our pain, coming to your office and telling you how we felt, and you just did nothing,” he said.

The student handed over the microphone and left the chapel.

“If I understand what you’re saying right, the pain of our classmates is our educational experience,” said a student in reference to idea of retaining the Calhoun name as a way to educate people about slavery.

Another student questioned whether Yale has the resources necessary to educate its students about race.

“We are hemorrhaging qualified and caring faculty of color,” she said.

The student said Salovey must initiate structural changes to enable a healthy and productive conversation on race and racial history, including hiring more faculty of color, granting tenure to more faculty of color, and expanding mental health resources specifically for students of color.

Salovey said the university’s failure to attract more black and Latino faculty members is a primary concern.

“You are a pretty diverse group of people, your faculty are not,” he said, adding that he was determined to find a solution to the problem.

Another student disputed the argument that erasing Calhoun’s name would erase Yale history.

“I feel that Calhoun’s name is a brand on the backs of Calhoun students,” he said.

The student suggested that a better way to make students aware of Yale history would be to require they take at least one class on the university’s history.

Prior to Salovey’s opening remarks, students threw phony money from the chapel’s balcony to protest the naming of one of the new residential colleges after Franklin, who owned slaves before speaking out against slavery late in his life. Dozens of students wore “Franklin College” T-shirts bearing the image of singer Aretha Franklin over the words “just askin’ for a little respect.” Other students stood in the chapel’s aisle waving the board game Monopoly, referencing the $250 million gift that helped to finance the building of the two new colleges.  

Salovey said that the donation did not obligate Yale to name the college after Franklin, though he said the donor had asked the university to consider doing so.

Amid the students’ protests, the tears, and passionate expressions of anger, Salovey calmly listened to the students for more than hour and attempted to address their concerns.

“I’ve taught here a long time,” he said. “The last thing I could ever feel good about is causing you pain.”

At the end of the session, the students filed from the chapel singing a hymn. Some stayed behind to clean up the fake money.

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