Race & Renaming: A Talk with Peter Salovey, President of Yale

Students reading a set of demands to Yale President Peter Salovey in front of his house, New Haven, Connecticut, November 2015
Kaifeng Wu/Yale Daily News
Students reading a set of demands to Yale President Peter Salovey in front of his house, New Haven, Connecticut, November 2015

In late April, Yale President Peter Salovey announced that the university would not change the name of Calhoun College, a residential college named after John C. Calhoun. Calhoun, a Yale graduate and a leading politician and political theorist of the nineteenth century, served as a member of the House of Representatives, senator, vice-president under Presidents John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, secretary of war, and secretary of state. He was also an avowed defender of slavery, states’ rights, and nullification.

Last fall, students of color and others launched protests about the lack of diversity and racial inclusion at Yale, one of many student protests across the nation. Among other things, Yale students asked for greater diversity in faculty and more resources for racially identified cultural centers and courses. (Of 655 tenure-track professors in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, twenty-four, or 3.7 percent, are African-American, and eighteen, or 2.7 percent, are Hispanic.) The students also called for Calhoun College to be renamed, for the abandonment of the term “master” for heads of residential colleges, and for the dismissal of one associate master, Erika Christakis, because of a letter she had written defending the rights of students to wear offensive costumes on Halloween.

In November, President Salovey responded to the protests by announcing a series of structural reforms, including more funding for four minority student cultural centers, the creation of an academic center for the study of race, the hiring of new faculty, and training for Yale administrators in recognizing and combating racial discrimination. He declined to remove or otherwise punish Erika Christakis (who later decided not to continue teaching in Yale College, while maintaining her work as associate master of Silliman College and as a faculty member in the Yale Child Study Center). He put off decisions on the term “master” and Calhoun College until he could gather the views of community members.

In the meantime, students at Princeton called for the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs to be renamed because of Wilson’s racist views; students at Harvard Law School demanded that the school abandon its shield, which featured the crest of the Royalls, a slave-owning family that had donated to the law school; and students at Amherst called for discontinuing the school’s unofficial mascot, Lord Jeff, because his namesake, Lord Jeffrey Amherst, had urged the delivery of smallpox-infested blankets to Native Americans in the colonial era. Harvard recently decided to drop the Royall family crest, and Lord Jeff is no longer Amherst’s mascot. Princeton, however, chose to keep the name of the Woodrow Wilson School.

Yale decided to retain…

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