Race on Campus: A Conversation with Yale President Peter Salovey

Yale University president Peter Salovey addresses the media after a student march on campus, November 9, 2015
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Yale University President Peter Salovey being interviewed after a student march on campus, November 9, 2015

Six months after a controversy about racial inclusion at Yale University gained nationwide attention, Yale President Peter Salovey has announced that Yale will not change the name of Calhoun College, named after a nineteenth-century statesman and political theorist who defended slavery. At the same time, the university is dropping the use of the term “master” to refer to heads of residential colleges. This follows Salovey’s announcement in November of a series of initiatives Yale will take to address protesters’ concerns, including more resources for hiring diverse faculty, the creation of a center for the study of race, increased funding for minority student centers, and more support for students in need. 

Shortly before Wednesday’s announcement about the naming, I spoke with President Salovey about these decisions and broader concerns about race raised by student protests at Yale and many other campuses this past year. What follows are excerpts of our conversation; a longer text will appear in a coming issue of The New York Review.


David Cole: Why did Yale decide not to change the name of Calhoun College, despite the fact that many students and alumni called on it to do so?

Peter Salovey: The debate about the name of Calhoun College has gone on intermittently for many years. [John C.] Calhoun was a defender of slavery, and he defended it not just as a necessary evil, but as a “positive good.” So this was not an easy decision. We listened to students, faculty, alumni, and staff. We’ve had multiple conversations among the trustees. But this isn’t the kind of question you can put to a vote. You have to decide what is the right principle for an educational institution. To me, the principle that is most compelling is that we shouldn’t obscure our history, and we shouldn’t run from our past. There is no doubt that Calhoun’s views on slavery are repugnant. But the appropriate response is to ask what we can learn about the history of racism in this country, and thereby motivate ourselves to work toward a better future. We do that by learning about Calhoun, by confronting Calhoun, not by pretending that he didn’t exist.

For years the college has celebrated Calhoun in a public way. Will the confrontation be equally public?

Yes, I think so. I would not call naming a residential college for Calhoun necessarily celebrating him, although it does memorialize him. Our plan is both to include on the Calhoun College grounds an art installation that will confront Calhoun’s ideas and to launch a history project at Yale that will make visible aspects of this campus’s history, both those that we can be proud of but also those that we now find disturbing. And we can’t just focus on Calhoun. We need to examine many of our namesakes and many of the historic moments on this campus and learn from them.…Any 315-year-old institution in this country is going to discover aspects of its own history about which it is now not proud.

Do you think that uncovering that history is sufficient? And if not, what more can Yale or any other university do to respond to its own involvement in historic racial injustices?

Revealing that history is only the first step. Teaching it in the context of larger struggles is the next step and then using it to guide us as we go forward in a principled way is very important. We can learn about ourselves not only from what Calhoun had to say about slavery in the first part of the nineteenth century—as challenging as that is to our twenty-first-century ears—but also to talk about how decisions to memorialize on this campus were made. The decision to name Calhoun College was made not in 1850, but around 1930. And we can learn from the conversations that took place or did not take place at that time too.

Were any objections to Calhoun raised at the time?

As far as we can tell they were not.

You have also announced that Yale is going to name its two new residential colleges after Anna Pauline Murray, a civil rights activist, and Benjamin Franklin. Pauline Murray was a powerful advocate for women’s rights and African American rights, and brings diversity to Yale’s residential college names, but why Ben Franklin? He didn’t go to Yale, he’s yet another white man, and he owned slaves, didn’t he?

Yes, Franklin owned slaves. But his beliefs changed quite dramatically and by the end of his life he became the president of the Abolitionist Society in Philadelphia and wrote a petition to Congress arguing for the abolition of slavery. He has an honorary degree from Yale and carried on a long correspondence with Ezra Stiles, an early president of Yale. And Yale is the home of the Benjamin Franklin papers. So there’s a strong connection between Franklin and Yale. Finally, these colleges would not have been built without the generosity of a 1954 Yale graduate named Charlie Johnson. He gave to Yale its largest gift ever by a single individual. That gift is going to allow thousands of students to get an education at Yale who wouldn’t otherwise have had that chance. Benjamin Franklin is a personal hero to Charlie Johnson. So one consideration in naming the colleges was to find a way to honor and express our gratitude toward him.

Why did you change the title of master for the heads of the residential colleges?

Master is actually not a term with much historical resonance at Yale. It comes from the fact that when our residential colleges were built in the 1930s, our models were Cambridge and Oxford. And that’s what the heads of the colleges at Cambridge and Oxford were and still are called. The word “master” comes from the Latin for “teacher.” There’s nothing inherent in the word that’s a problem, but in this country it also has the connotation of an owner of slaves and I think it is very hard for students to call their residential college head “master.” It is cringe-worthy for staff, custodians, and dining hall workers to have to call the head of the college where they work master in this day and age. The masters themselves had become uncomfortable with the title and wanted it changed.

I’d like to move on now to the broader lessons from the protests last fall at Yale. As you know, similar protests took place on dozens of campuses across the country. Why now?

The media’s obsessive focus on specific triggering events on many campuses misses the larger issues. There is no doubt that social media accelerated the sharing of information among students. But more significant is what is on eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds’ minds when they come to campus today. Students from underrepresented minority groups in particular arrive having witnessed videos and reading reports of unarmed individuals of their age and color dying at the hands of law enforcement officers. They think about who disproportionately populates our prisons. They think about how a case is in front of the Supreme Court now that might bar the consideration of race or ethnicity in admissions decisions at colleges and universities. They think about the fact that the high schools they attended might have been more integrated twenty-five years ago than they are today. They think about the way political figures running for public office talk about race and ethnicity in disparaging terms. All of that contributes to a heightened awareness of slights, insults, and other incidents on campus that make their minority status salient. That’s what I think we were seeing on campuses across the country last fall.

Some commentators have belittled the students’ complaints, particularly in light of their privileged status as Yale students.

Taken out of context, any single incident might appear to be relatively minor, but the experiences can and do accumulate over time. Students talk to me about returning home to their residential colleges at night and gates being shut and locked in front of them by a classmate because they don’t “look like a Yale student.” Students tell me about classrooms where they are asked to speak on behalf of their ethnicity, race, or nationality. Students talk about observing segregated social scenes that to them do not look like a random assortment of Yale students. At the end of the day, all our students want to feel that they belong and that they have the same access to a great education as everyone else. And we have to take that seriously. Are our students privileged to be here? Of course they are. But Yale is not walled off from the real world. It is part of the real world.

Might part of the problem for students of color stem from the gap between Yale as a bastion of privilege and New Haven as an urban center beset by poverty and crime?

Our host city, New Haven, has the challenges that any urban area in the United States has. We are diverse, ethnically and economically. We have challenges of poverty in the midst of wealth. We have challenges of public schooling and housing. Yale tries to be a partner with the city in many ways. We make more voluntary payments to our city than I believe any other university makes to its host city. We pay for a program that provides scholarships to every graduate of a New Haven public high school with a certain GPA, attendance record, and level of community service to attend any college or university in Connecticut. We have a homebuyer program that has provided 1,100 of our employees a significant contribution toward the purchase of a home in the city….Finally, 75 percent of our undergraduates volunteer in New Haven. They are tutors in schools, they work for literacy programs, they coach, they work on housing. I think our level of community service is as high as one would find on any college campus in the country.

But isn’t the problem of Yale in New Haven just a specific instance of the much broader problem of the wealth gap in our society today? And on that score, aren’t elite private universities arguably as much a part of the problem as of the solution?

There is no doubt that the distribution of wealth in this country is disturbing to this generation of students. But in my view, universities can and should be part of the solution.… Part of the way to address income disparities is by providing education. About 20 percent of our students are the first in their family to go to college. The number of our students who are eligible for federal Pell Grants for low income families has gone up by 40 percent over the past several years, and is now somewhere between 15 and 20 percent of the student body. More than half of our undergraduates are receiving financial aid, and the average aid grant this year is $43,000. Pursuing and supporting such students is a way of addressing income disparities. In fact, our data show that disparities in family wealth at the time of admission shrink five years after graduation from Yale.

One of the principal concerns that has been raised by the recent student protests is about freedom of expression. In C. Vann Woodward’s report on free speech at Yale in the 1970s, he warned that “without sacrificing its central purpose, a university cannot make its primary and dominant value the fostering of friendship, solidarity, harmony, civility, or mutual respect.” To do so, he suggested, would contravene the goal of exposing students to provocative challenging ways of thinking. Do you agree with that, and if so, how do you navigate the tension between making people feel comfortable and safe and ensuring that Yale remains, in Woodward’s terms, “a forum for the new, the provocative, the disturbing, and the unorthodox?”

I absolutely agree with Woodward. In fact, my address welcoming the freshmen to campus in 2014 quoted that same passage. But I think it’s critical to recognize that inclusion and free expression are both important values and don’t necessarily represent a challenge to each other. Woodward goes on to say that, to be sure, friendship, solidarity, and harmony are important values and a good university will seek to promote them, but it can’t let those values get in the way of free expression. That’s a really important point and I think many critics have missed it. We can value civility, respect, and inclusion, without compromising free expression if we help students develop the ability to speak back in response to ideas that they find offensive.

But some Yale professors have expressed concern that the climate of inclusion has made it more difficult to foster debate in the classroom. Is there a risk that you will make people less willing to speak frankly?

We must take seriously the fact that this is an educational environment and we are educators. The answer to speech that offends us is always our own speech, more speech, and I recognize that that isn’t always comfortable and I recognize that it might be easier to simply be offended and angry than to respond and to argue back, but I think we have to help our students learn how to do that. Our campus is committed to free expression. Even in the midst of this fall’s discussions about inclusion and student protests, people came to this campus and delivered addresses that featured extremely unpopular ideas. Penn Law professor Amy Wax was here speaking against affirmative action, Greg Lukianoff of FIRE, one of the principal critics of what he sees as politically-correct campus speech restrictions, was here. No one at Yale during my tenure has had an invitation rescinded over protests about what they’re going to say and no one has been punished at Yale for expressing an opinion, whether they are faculty or students.

We have been very clear at every point to emphasize that promoting inclusion and belonging need not be at odds with the strong value that we place on free expression. In an educational environment, those two principles must coexist.