Report outlines principles for renaming campus buildings

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(Photo by Michael Marsland)

The report of the Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming — offering clear guidelines on university decisions to remove a historical name from a campus building, space, or structure — has been approved by President Peter Salovey and Yale’s trustees.

“Questions of naming and commemoration raise difficult but important discussions,” wrote Salovey in an email to the Yale community. “These are complicated intellectual and moral issues faced by universities and other institutions around the world. From the outset, I have sought for Yale to bring its scholarly resources to bear on this subject of national and international import. My hope is that the principles announced today will prove useful not only to our community but to others as well.”

Committee’s process

In a letter accompanying the report, the committee — chaired by John Fabian Witt ’94, ’99 J.D., ’00 Ph.D., the Allen H. Duffy Class of 1960 Professor of Law and professor of history — noted that, as part of its work, the members “read scholarship on the history and theory of naming and renaming. We studied renaming debates in other times and places. We researched the experience at Yale, and we tried to use the scholarly expertise in history represented on our Committee.”

Watch a video of the committee members discussing their work

Noting that the members heard many diverse and passionate views, the committee members wrote that they did not aim to produce a report “dictated by majority opinion or by the intensity with which opinions were held. We conceived of our task, however, as developing a reasoned answer, not necessarily the most popular answer. In this respect, every suggestion made us better students of the issues involved.”

Erasing the past?

The report begins with the statement “The central mission of a university is to discover and disseminate knowledge,” noting that the sentiment echoes the conclusions reached 40 years ago by the committee on free speech chaired by C. Vann Woodward.

“Erasing names is a matter of special concern, because those names are, in part, a catalog of the people whom the university has thought worthy of honor. Removing such names may obscure important information about our past,” says the report. “To change, however, is not always to erase. Indeed, change is indispensable in a university that has evolved over more than 300 years. … A university’s ongoing obligation is to navigate change without effacing the past.”

The report notes that: “The imperative in addressing renaming questions is that the university align any building name change with the mission of the university, with its deep history, and with its promising future. … In its building names and its campus symbols, the university communicates values, confers honor, and expresses gratitude to those who have contributed to its mission. In other words, the university itself speaks through its building names. … One of the values the university rightly communicates is the importance of genuine inclusiveness for all those who will make it a leading center for research and teaching in the years to come.”

Previous name changes at Yale

The report looked at renaming controversies at other universities and noted that Yale has seen many changes in “nomenclature and symbolism” during its history: “As president in the 1960s, Kingman Brewster removed a series of racist caricatures of African Americans from the walls of Payne Whitney Gymnasium. A part of Pierson College was known as ‘The Slave Quarters’ until 1980, when it was renamed the Lower Court. In 2004 it was renamed again and it is now Rosenkranz Court. Other historical structures and building names at Yale have undergone processes of change over time as well.”

Considerations for and against renaming

“Renaming on account of values should be an exceptional event,” says the report, noting that such considerations should not be based solely on “the values associated with its namesake” and that the case against renaming “is at its strongest when a building has been named for someone who made major contributions to the university.”

The report, however, goes on to say that sometimes renaming on the basis of the namesake’s principles may be warranted: “We expect that renaming will typically prove warranted only when more than one principle listed here points toward renaming; even when more than one principle supports renaming, renaming may not be required

if other principles weigh heavily in the balance.”

Principles for consideration

The report offered these guidelines for considering renaming:

Is a principal legacy of the namesake fundamentally at odds with the mission of the university?

Was the relevant principal legacy significantly contested in the time and place in which the namesake lived?

Did the university, at the time of a naming, honor a namesake for reasons that are fundamentally at odds with the mission of the university?

Does a building whose namesake has a principal legacy fundamentally at odds with the university’s mission, or which was named for reasons fundamentally at odds with the university’s mission, play a substantial role in forming community at the university?

Obligations of renaming or not renaming

“When a name is altered, there are obligations on the university to ensure that the removal does not have the effect of erasing history,” wrote the committee members. “When a name is retained, there may be obligations on the university to ensure that preservation does not have the effect of distorting history.”

The report concluded with a recommendation that a formal process for considering requests for renaming be established.

Read the full report.

“Enduring and timeless guidance”

When announcing the establishment of the committee in August, Salovey noted that the debate over renaming Calhoun College made it clear to him that “the community-wide conversation about these issues could have drawn more effectively on campus expertise. In particular, we would have benefited from a set of well-articulated guiding principles according to which historical name might be removed or changed.”

In his letter today to the campus community, Salovey said, “The report of the Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming provides the kind of enduring and timeless guidance I had hoped for: thoughtful, clear, scholarly, and balanced. It represents the intensive efforts of an extraordinary group of committee members who dedicated four months to meeting with each other, soliciting the input of the Yale community, reviewing documents, speaking with experts from around the country, and engaging in thoughtful analysis and debate. On behalf of the trustees, I offer heartfelt appreciation for this remarkable service to the university.”

Procedures for renaming established

Salovey announced that, acting on the committee’s final recommendation, a procedure for requests to remove a historical name from a building has been created and that “bearing in mind that we have already accumulated a wealth of historical information and community input regarding John C. Calhoun,” the question of Calhoun College’s name has been submitted to these procedures for consideration. A committee of three advisers has been charged with implementing the process: G. Leonard Baker (Calhoun ’64); John Lewis Gaddis, the Robert A. Lovett Professor of Military and Naval History; and Jacqueline Goldsby, professor of English and American studies and professor and chair of African American studies.

“They have been asked to do a thorough and thoughtful job,” said Salovey, “and we will allow them the time they require to come to a reasoned recommendation, with the expectation that their report and recommendation will be reviewed and a decision reached by the Yale Corporation early in 2017.” To send a message to the advisers, click here.

“In closing,” wrote the president, “I take to heart the final assertion of the committee’s report — that if Yale ‘is to take up the work of “improving the world today and for future generations” by helping to educate the leaders of tomorrow, it will need to do more than reconsider symbols. It will need to continually dedicate and rededicate itself to carrying out its mission of excellence in teaching, research, and learning.’”

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