An Open Letter Calling On Yale University To Rename Calhoun College

On April 27, 2016, Yale University President Peter Salovey announced that the University has chosen to retain the Calhoun College name, despite widespread support among the Yale community for replacing John C. Calhoun, the former U.S. vice president most widely remembered as a prominent defender of slavery.

In July, the New Haven Independent reported that Corey Menafee, a black dining hall worker at Yale, lost his job after smashing a stained-glass window in Calhoun College depicting slaves picking cotton. Mr. Menafee told the Independent that “he was tired of looking at the ‘racist, very degrading’ image.” Following an outpouring of support for Mr. Menafee, the criminal charges against him were dismissed, and he was reinstated as an employee at the university.

In the aftermath of the news concerning Mr. Menafee, three months after he announced the initial Calhoun decision, President Salovey announced the formation of the Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming, suggesting that Calhoun College may be renamed after all.

In the months following President Salovey’s initial announcement concerning Calhoun College, members of the Yale community signed an open letter that was posted at Yesterday, we sent the open letter to President Salovey, members of the Yale Corporation, and members of the Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming, with the signatures of 845 students, alumni, faculty, staff, and other members of the Yale community.

Below is the full text of the open letter. The full list of signatures can be viewed in the PDF version of the letter linked below.

To President Peter Salovey and the Members of the Yale Corporation:

We—the undersigned alumni, students, faculty, staff, and members of the Yale community—write to express our disappointment in the University’s decision to retain the Calhoun College name.

As undergraduates at Yale understand, Calhoun is much more than a name of a building. Like all incoming Yalies, students assigned to Calhoun are taught that their residential colleges are central to their Yale experiences. Like all Yalies, they are expected to learn their college’s traditions, songs, and chants; to don paraphernalia proudly advertising their residential college; and to compete and cheer for their residential college in intramural competitions. And, like all new Yalies, Calhoun students quickly learn that full membership in the Yale College community is contingent on your membership in your residential college (and that transferring to a different residential college is discouraged).

Yalies thus know that our college namesakes enjoy a ubiquity in our day-to-day lives on campus. The namesake of each college occupies an elevated, if not celebrated, place in undergraduate life.

This is why President Salovey’s proffered reasons for retaining the Calhoun name ring hollow. He has argued that the Calhoun decision advances Yale’s mission as an educational institution, but this decision does precisely the opposite.

Like all Yalies, students of color are eager to take advantage of the wonderful opportunities that a Yale education affords. But doing so becomes difficult when, to become a full member of the Yale community, you are expected to embrace your assignment to a community named after a man who is principally remembered as a steadfast defender of slavery.

More broadly, the Calhoun decision impedes the progress toward inclusion that, even according to President Salovey himself, Yale desperately needs. Last November, he wrote that “we need to make significant changes so that all members of our community truly feel welcome” and reaffirmed his commitment “to a campus where hatred and discrimination are never tolerated.” Notwithstanding this rhetoric, the University has doubled down on a decision Yale never should have made in the first place—honoring a man whose very legacy embodies hatred and discrimination.

Indeed, it is difficult to reconcile the Calhoun decision with the University’s decision to eliminate the title “Master.” In a recent conference call with alumni, President Salovey stated that the decision to eliminate the title was in part motivated by his discomfort observing custodial staff asking their “Masters” where they should place the trash. These incidents made him and the Council of Masters so uncomfortable that they could no longer tolerate keeping the title in use. The irony should be painfully obvious. It was discomfort experienced by President Salovey and the Council of Masters—not the experiences and feelings of students and staff themselves—that ultimately provoked change.

Accordingly, we reject President Salovey’s arguments that we need Calhoun to further the University’s educational work. As Professor Matthew Frye Jacobson recently suggested, it is doubtful that Yale would defend a “Joseph Goebbels College” as a pedagogical imperative. Indeed, there are other, more productive steps the University could take. Yale could, for example, grant departmental status to the Ethnicity, Race & Migration Program. It could add an ethnic studies distributional requirement to the undergraduate curriculum. And it could take steps to slow the exit of professors of color from the University. Far more than retaining the Calhoun name, any of these measures would help the Yale community “confront one of the most disturbing aspects of Yale’s and our nation’s past,” as President Salovey hopes.

Over the past several months, students and alumni have resoundingly and repeatedly called for genuine inclusion at Yale. It was our hope that responses like Yale’s decision to create the Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration was just the beginning of a series of steps the University would take to begin addressing the obstacles students of color face at Yale. When Yale decided not to remove the Calhoun name, the University missed a key opportunity to show students and alumni of color that despite the fundraising challenges that might ensue, Yale stands with them. To students who saw in “Dean Salovey” an ally and advocate for cultural centers, this decision was a betrayal.

Much of the Yale community agrees that it is unacceptable to continue to honor John C. Calhoun. We applaud the courageous actions that student-activists have already taken to protest this decision, and we are confident that the protests will pick up again in earnest during the new academic year. We will stand in solidarity with the student-activists until the Calhoun name is removed.


The Undersigned