UP CLOSE: What’s in a name?

UP CLOSE:
What's in a name?

Published on April 14, 2017

The renaming of Calhoun College closed a debate that turns on the legacy of American slavery, the complexities of race and representation in America and, above all, the chilling power of a name like that of John C. Calhoun, class of 1804.

But on these questions, Yale alumni are not of one mind. While University President Peter Salovey announced in February that Calhoun College would be renamed in honor of U.S. Navy Rear Admiral and pioneering computer scientist Grace Hopper GRD ’34, a News survey of almost 2,000 alumni — a large number of whom graduated from Calhoun — suggests the decision has not settled the renaming discussion. In general, results suggested that younger and more liberal alumni were largely in favor of the renaming, while older and more conservative graduates tended to oppose the change.

The renaming of Calhoun unearthed sensitive questions about the significance of names and symbols as well as the legacy of slavery and racial discrimination in one of America’s most storied institutions. And while Yale’s campus grapples with these issues, alumni from across seven decades are also testing the adage that a “house divided against itself cannot stand.”

THE GREAT DIVIDE

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus argues against those accusing him of performing miracles through Satan’s aid by citing the principle that “every city or house divided against itself shall not stand.”

In an 1858 speech, President Abraham Lincoln employed Jesus’ phrase to prophesy that slavery would not destroy the Union.

Addressing the U.S. Senate in 1837, however, Calhoun was already prepared to split the nation into two: one nation with slavery, one without.

“By the necessary course of events, if left to themselves, we must become, finally, two people,” Calhoun declared to the Senate. “It is impossible under the deadly hatred which must spring up between the two great sections, if the present causes are permitted to operate unchecked, that we should continue under the same political system.”

Calhoun, the American South’s foremost intellectual and political leader until his death in 1850, was the preeminent advocate for Confederate secession from the Union, one of the most important interpreters of the U.S. Constitution in American history and among the fiercest proponents of the white supremacist argument that slavery is a “positive good” for whites and blacks alike. Eighty-one years after his death, his alma mater named one of its original 12 residential colleges after the imposing politician.

In total, 61 percent of the 1,816 alumni who responded approved of the renaming, while 29.6 percent of respondents were either “opposed” or “strongly opposed” to the decision. An additional 9.4 percent were neutral on the issue. Sixty-seven percent of respondents graduated between 1980 and 2016, and the remaining 33 percent between 1946 and 1979.

Indeed, more than 78 percent of respondents from the classes of 1946 through 1959 were either “opposed” or “strongly opposed” to renaming, a figure well above the 68 percent of alumni from the 1960s who felt the same way. Among alumni from the 1970s, only 34 percent opposed renaming. And those against the renaming who graduated in the 1980s represented only 19 percent of all respondents from that decade. For every subsequent decade, this figure hovers around 20 percent.

The results of this survey were not adjusted for bias.

Vice President for Alumni Affairs and Development Joan O’Neill said the University had itself noticed this generational divide from communications with alumni, though she also pointed out that there were exceptions.

In addition to indicating their attitude toward the name change in their correspondence with the University, alumni were also divided on how much attention the Calhoun debate deserved, O’Neill said. Many alumni wrote that they felt the Calhoun decision was very significant for Yale, while others thought it was given too much attention and that the University should focus on other priorities.

In addition to a generational divide, the survey also found a split along political leaning, ethnicity and gender. More than 84 percent of alumni who identified as “conservative” or “very conservative” opposed the renaming. Nonwhite respondents were more likely to be supportive of the name change than respondents who identified as Caucasian, and female respondents — all of whom are members of the class of 1971 or later — were significantly more likely to view the decision favorably than men.

TO CHANGE OR NOT TO CHANGE

When Salovey initially announced that the University would retain the name of Calhoun College in April 2016, he justified the decision by appealing to a historical argument.

“Removing Calhoun’s name obscures the legacy of slavery rather than addressing it,” Salovey wrote in an email to the Yale community. “Erasing Calhoun’s name from a much-beloved residential college risks masking this past, downplaying the lasting effects of slavery and substituting a false and misleading narrative, albeit one that might allow us to feel complacent or, even, self-congratulatory.”

Survey respondent Jerrold Petruzzelli ’74, who opposed the renaming, offered parallel reasoning to Salovey. Petruzzelli said the name should be kept as a teaching opportunity and a reminder of slavery, which he called America’s “original sin.”

“Keeping the name forces confrontation every day of the issues posed,” Petruzelli added.

Another survey respondent and Yale College alumnus from the class of 1995, who agreed to share his thoughts on the condition of anonymity, expressed a similar line of thought.

“I think Calhoun was a giant of early 19th-century America, warts and all,” the alumnus wrote. “I think Yale students could benefit from facing the complicated history of their alma mater head-on instead of through the filter of contemporary mores alone.”

“Those of us who are not afraid of history know that the man was a racist, that his ideas impelled the fomentation of civil war, which was a terrible thing,” the ’95 graduate continued. “We know that many of the institutions for which he fought were repugnant and destined to be crushed in a country as wonderful as ours. But he was an extremely important American, and I am sorry that present sensitivities do not appear to allow for, again, facing history head-on.”

This worry, stemming from the dangers of not facing and learning from history, was particularly common among alumni respondents against the renaming. For these alumni, Salovey and the administration’s initial position on the renaming debate — that the name of Calhoun should remain as a reminder of Yale and America’s sordid past — was in fact the best-informed opinion.

For those alumni displeased with the renaming, however, perhaps the most common concern was the possibility of a “slippery slope” where, due to the precedent set by Calhoun, no name would ever be safe or sacred. Indeed, 16 survey responses included the words “slippery slope.”

This “slippery slope” worry was often framed by alumni as a sort of reductio ad absurdum, bringing the implications of the Calhoun decision to purportedly absurd conclusions, like the renaming of Yale College, and thereby invalidating the name change. Twenty-eight separate responses mentioned that, due to Elihu Yale’s active role in the slave-trade, the name “Yale” itself might be endangered by the Calhoun decision.

But according to History Professor John Witt ’94 LAW ’99 GRD ’00, the chair of the committee charged with establishing the principles for renaming buildings at Yale, this type of argument does not hold water.

“Slippery slope arguments rest on the idea that there is no material difference between two or more things,” Witt told the News. “One of the great virtues of the renaming principles conversations we had in the fall was that in dialogue with alums, faculty, students and staff we were able to identify vital differences that ultimately marked Calhoun as having a distinctive legacy … It turns out that there were reasons why the Calhoun name had been singled out over decades.”

One survey respondent expressed a worry exactly opposite to the slippery slope concern: that the renaming principles were designed to inculpate Calhoun and let the rest of Yale’s building’s namesakes get off free.

“A cynical person may think them shrewdly and narrowly constructed to apply to John C. Calhoun yet not Elihu Yale, Samuel Morse, class of 1810, Ben Franklin, or other slaveholders honored on campus,” the ’05 alumnus wrote. “I am hopeful this was not the case.”

Though a potentially cynical view, the idea that the report only created room for the renaming of Calhoun resonates with student reaction on campus after the committee released their report. Bernard Stanford ’17, for instance, told the News in December that the principles, and especially the criterion of a “principal legacy,” seem to indict Calhoun while letting the names of other buildings remain despite their controversial namesakes.

Stanford cited the name of Morse College, named for Samuel Morse, as an example of a building that the principles outlined in the report would likely protect from renaming, despite Morse’s history of anti-Catholic views, since his principal legacy was inventing the telegraph.

The majority of alumni respondents, however, were not worried about the possibility of a slippery slope. They instead expressed unreserved approval of the decision, which they saw as a reflection of Yale’s attempt to catch up with the present, rather than an erasure of history.

Ted Russell ’85, a black Calhoun alumnus who supported the name change, found the argument that the Calhoun decision was an erasure of history rather limited.

“For 35 years I wore an invisible brand. Oppression is real,” Russell said. “We can’t erase history, but we don’t have to subject African-American Yalies to live in the ‘house’ celebrating one of the greatest promoters of white supremacy in the history of our United States.”

Indeed, Russell found the removal of Calhoun’s name both a movement toward justice and a personally liberating event.

“Hearing the news, I was jumping up and down and pinging Yale friends,” Russell said. “Over the week that followed, I felt a bit lighter each day. I had a palpable sense of the weight of oppression I had carried since the day I read some of Calhoun’s biographies in our residential college library.”

“I love my residential college,” Russell added. “I am overjoyed to now be a Hopperite.”

And alumni from a broad spectrum of class years and backgrounds also expressed great joy over the renaming decision.

Elizabeth Pitts ’86, a survey respondent, said that while she did not understand Calhoun’s legacy during her time at Yale, she now feels embarrassed to have regularly eaten breakfast in the residential college.

“As an alum, I am so pleased that an iconic institution like Yale can take another look at their practices, policies and even historically emblazoned figures and publicly review their long since past decisions while making changes that properly demonstrate evolution,” Pitts said, adding that keeping the Calhoun name would be at odds with Yale’s mission of “intellectual thought and progress.”

Many survey respondents who supported the decision pointed to the extreme discomfort experienced by either themselves or fellow Yale alumni and students as motivation for the change, or, like Pitts, noted that the name ‘Calhoun’ contradicts the University’s values. Yet many alumni also thought that the essence of Calhoun College exists beyond a name, and rather in the community and people who call the residential college home.

PROBLEMS WITH THE PROCESS

Almost as controversial as the Calhoun name was the fraught renaming process itself, which also came under alumni scrutiny in the survey.

Salovey devoted his annual freshman address to the Calhoun dispute in 2015, and student activists placed it at the core of their demands for a more racially inclusive Yale. In April 2016, the Yale Corporation voted against renaming the college. But in August, Salovey formed a committee to establish definitive principles guiding future renaming decisions.

In December, after the committee released its report, the University created a second faculty-led task force to apply the renaming principles to Calhoun.

This second Calhoun task force — which consisted of alumnus G. Leonard Baker ’64 and two faculty members, John Gaddis and Jacqueline Goldsby GRD ’98 — presented a report to Salovey in January unanimously recommending that Calhoun be renamed in light of the committee’s report and the principles it outlined.

It was this lengthy process that some alumni, like Robert Mason ’56, found more troubling than the removal of the Calhoun name itself.

Mason said he had no interest in preserving the name of John C. Calhoun “per se,” but rather was troubled by what he saw as Salovey’s choice to change the name of Calhoun in response to student protests.

“A student protest against historical remnants is trivial in comparison with the higher educational mission of Yale University,” Mason said. “Salovey’s reversal of his initial decision about the Calhoun name and his deftly manipulative formation of senior faculty members plus committee to contemplate a ‘fait accompli’ are not persuasive.”

Mason continued that he had “no illusion” that his attitude would change any minds, especially considering his opinion that the Calhoun name issue was not an “open question” after the formation of the task force.

What the decision and its process did do for Mason, however, was help him “think more about what [he] valued about Yale.”

“No more hundreds of dollars from this alumnus,” he declared.

Other survey respondents echoed Mason’s sentiments. A large number of alumni said they were displeased with Salovey’s approach to the issue, with many interpreting his actions during the process as “weak” and “hypocritical,” displeased by his and other University administrators’ perceived inability to stand up against the demands of students.

Witt, however, pointed to the report issued by the Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming to emphasize that it was the faculty’s, not student’s, reaction that occasioned the reconsideration of the initial Calhoun decision.

He also noted the importance of alumni opinions in the committee’s process of writing the report and eventually issuing its recommendation to remove Calhoun’s name from the building.

“Our committee, like the advisory group President Salovey convened, included substantial representation of alums from the classes of the 1960s, early 1970s and the 1980s,” Witt said. “The wisdom from these alums was indispensable to us.”

GIVING AND TAKING AWAY

But while other alums said they were impressed by the renaming process and supported Salovey’s handling of the procedure, the survey also showed that many alums were nonetheless discouraged from continuing to donate to the University following the Calhoun decision.

Though this was by no means a universal phenomenon — only one additional percent of alums who took the survey were discouraged rather than encouraged to give — the name’s negative effect on alumni giving was especially evident in older generations of Yalies.

For the classes from the 50s, for instance, 62.5 percent of alums who reported that they regularly give to the University said their giving was “negatively” or “very negatively” impacted by the name change. This figure stands at almost 57 percent for alums from the 60s, and roughly 28 percent of alumni who graduated during the 70s.

From the 80s on, however, this figure oscillates around 16 percent, and many more alumni responded that they were in fact more inclined to give to the University after the Calhoun decision. Further, of those alumni who said they did not regularly give to the University, almost 64 percent said that their plans to give were not at all affected by the naming decision.

These numbers roughly agree with Joan O’Neill’s predictions in a March interview with the News, where she said she expected some alumni would choose to not give to Yale because of the Calhoun decision. It is not as clearly supportive, however, of the confidence O’Neill expressed that Yale will eventually win back alumni who are unhappy about the Calhoun decision.

O’Neill compared the process of trying to bring alumni back into the fold after the Calhoun renaming to the University’s efforts to pacify alumni whose children or grandchildren are rejected during the admissions process.

“They may not want to talk about Yale, but they may feel better with a little bit of time,” she said in the March interview. “It may be that they don’t make their annual gift this year, but we hope that we get them back.”

O’Neill also emphasized how important alumni are for the University, in terms of providing financial support and offering their leadership and expertise as volunteers across Yale.

“Yale is extremely lucky to have one of the most dedicated alumni groups of all of our peers,” O’Neill wrote. “I always say that the best part of my job is working with such an amazing group of alums.”

Weili Cheng ’77, executive director of the Association of Yale Alumni, was more equivocal on the impact of the name change on alumni.

Cheng said she had not heard directly from alumni in response to the Hopper announcement. Rather, she said, most alumni responses went directly to Salovey.

When asked whether she thought older alumni felt the Yale of today was not “their Yale,” however, Cheng said today’s Yale is rather different from the Yale she knew in 1977, citing changes in the student body and in New Haven. She added that, in the near future, she thought some alumni would be inspired to give more to the University due to the naming decision, while others may give less.

The News’ survey did show that the effects of the name change on giving were not entirely positive or negative. But of the 150 alumni who reported that they had donated $50,000 or more to the University in the past, 52 percent said that their giving would be “negatively” or “very negatively” affected by the name change. Included in this group are six alumni who reported having given gifts of more than one million dollars to the University.

By contrast, of those alums who reported having given $50,000 or more to the University, only 10 percent said their giving would be “positively” or “very positively” affected.

A HOUSE AND A HOME

Beyond financial repercussions, however, there is another piece of the Calhoun puzzle that seems particularly overlooked by coverage of the debate: the emotional response of those alumni who associated the name of Calhoun College not with John C. Calhoun, but the people and community they knew during their time at Yale. Although Salovey said in the renaming announcement that alumni can identify as a member of either Calhoun or Hopper, removing Calhoun’s namesake still evokes a sense of loss for Calhoun graduates.

David McIntosh ’08, a member of Calhoun College during his time at Yale, said he was initially quite conflicted on the name change due to his personal connection with the name Calhoun.

“I spent my college years as a proud member of Calhoun. We wore Calhoun t-shirts and chanted Calhoun chants,” McIntosh said. “My affection for the name was not connected with John C. Calhoun in any way, but that the name was a constant unifying thread of my college experience — a name which happened to be Calhoun. Dean Holloway spoke the words of my heart when he wrote that ‘I never actually spent a day in John C. Calhoun College.’”

“Changing the name of the college felt a little like erasing a core part of how I connected with my Yale experience,” he added.

One survey respondent went so far as to liken the effect of the name change to an “amputation,” but most alumni who had similar sentiments to those of McIntosh simply expressed the fact that the name Calhoun meant a great deal to them — a meaning was in no way connected to the man Calhoun.

But for some alumni in this category, there might be a silver lining to this feeling of wistfulness. Indeed, McIntosh himself said he later had a change of heart.

“I am now proud of the name change, if a little unsure of where this leaves my collegiate identity,” he said. “I’m not sure if I can earnestly say that I’m a graduate of Grace Hopper College — that was not my experience, even if I’m proud of the current name.”

For Margaret Desjardins ’79, who was in Calhoun, the renaming of her residential college evoked similarly mixed feelings. While she found Hopper to be a good choice for a new name, Desjardins felt saddened by the renaming of Calhoun.

“My college is no more,” she said, “and I haven’t memories of being in Hopper College.”

Unlike colleges like Timothy Dwight or Jonathan Edwards, Calhoun never included the namesake’s first name, Desjardins pointed out, so it was “conveniently easy for [her], a white girl,” to distance herself from the name John C. Calhoun.

Although Desjardins thought Grace Hopper was “a brilliant badass,” and despite the fact that she liked the name “Hopper College” immensely, she felt it would be “affected” to adopt another identity after being a ‘Hounie’ for 40 years. Desjardins even likened the strangeness of such a change in residential college identity to one of her descendants changing religions or nationalities, and by doing so, retroactively converting her to a new identity.

“Perhaps I might get used to being a ‘Hopper, with the apostrophe a subtle homage to ‘Hounie as a nostalgic link to my former collegiate community,” she added.

Desjardins and McIntosh are not alone in undergoing a renaming opinion conversion while simultaneously remaining internally conflicted due to a feeling of loss. Such emotional responses were particularly common in the News’ survey, as many alumni described having a similar experience.

A HOUSE DIVIDED?

Is the Yale alumni community, then, really a house divided? The News’ survey still seems to suggest as much. But, taking into account the full range of alumni views, it also might just be the case that a house divided can in fact stand.

For while the renaming may seem like a defeat to some alums more than a compromise, a compromise in the case of such a high-profile debate might not have been a truly desirable option. Rather, the ability to air a variety of viewpoints and choose the best among them is just what Charlotte Handy ’84 framed as a particularly Yale outcome in a letter to fellow alumni that she shared with the News.

Handy wrote that she initially came down on the side of keeping the Calhoun name for much the same reason Salovey articulated last spring: discomfort with erasing history.

But after reading Salovey’s letter about the decision and the renaming committee’s report, Handy said she was convinced that the outcome was a positive one for Yale and for graduates like herself.

“However, I still think we should question the value of a name,” she wrote. “Coming together to discuss the values of an institution at any given point is a worthwhile exercise and should probably be done on a regular basis.”

“In fact,” she continued, “it may be one of the activities that most closely parallels the scholarly endeavors of the institution: history, thoughtful debate and reasoned argument … which can help strengthen the mission of the University.”

Handy also noted that the renaming of the residential college after a woman raised the naming issue again for her, because “most of us bear our father’s names, and not our mother’s, and then our husband’s, sometimes.”

“I personally chose to change my name from Charlotte Crozier Breed (my mother’s maiden name, her father’s and my father’s name) to Charlotte Breed Handy (dropping my mom’s name and adding my husband’s) under pressure from my husband about future children, convenience, yadayada,” Handy explained. “It pains me to think of all the ramifications, history, power and subservience contained in any person’s name.”

The ramification of Calhoun’s name also does not stop at the borders of Yale or New Haven. In a broader context, too, the Calhoun decision is a milestone in the history of race and representation at America and its leading universities.

“The renaming of Calhoun seems to me to be a relatively modest accomplishment in the broader scheme of things, given the grave difficulties around race and inequality in the United States,” Witt said. “But I feel good that we were able to take on a hot-button problem in the culture wars and generate effective and widely-respected principles for its resolution.”

The irony that the name of Calhoun College was decided by principles, not compromise, is palpable. Indeed, the issue of slavery in the United States about which Calhoun himself was so vocal was never decided by a series of compromises — rather, such compromises repeatedly failed, merely perpetuating the institution of slavery in America until it was decided by the bloodiest war in American history.

For while Calhoun prophesied that a house divided would necessarily separate North by South, the noisy, opinionated, divided community of Yale seems to continue to soldier onward.

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