The Name Game:
Alumni pick sides in the naming debate at Yale
Augie Rivera ’84 spent the summer of 1980 — his last summer before college — relaxing in his hometown of Driscoll, Texas. He spent time with family, worked a summer job in construction and savored the blazing summer temperatures of the Texas Gulf. He thought little of Yale, where he would attend in the fall, until a friend from South Texas who was a Yale freshman at the time began to wax poetic about Calhoun College and the community it contained. Convinced of its superiority, Rivera wrote to Yale that summer and requested placement in Calhoun. Four years later, he graduated from Calhoun College. This May, his daughter Carolina Rivera ’16 will follow in his footsteps as a Calhoun graduate.
Today, though, both Riveras insist on the end of “Calhoun College” as it is currently known. Instead, they want a college that, in their opinion, better reflects the current state of Yale — an amalgamation of students of different races, ideologies and aspirations.
“The time has come for Yale, as a community, to acknowledge that it was a mistake to name John C. Calhoun College in 1933,” Augie Rivera said. “And it remains a mistake today.”
Whether or not Calhoun should be renamed isn’t the only name-related controversy facing Yale this year. As the construction of two yet-unnamed residential colleges nears completion, and as students advocate for a University that better embraces diversity, the question is: Who gets to play the Name Game, and where do alumni fall?
The University officially broke ground on the two new residential colleges on Apr. 16, 2015. (Tarna Zander Velloso, Contributing Photographer)
“What’s the big deal in a name?” Lee Kaplan Jr., Princeton ’73, asked over the phone. At universities across the country this year, the issue of naming has attracted unprecedented national attention. Students at Yale, Princeton, Amherst, Stanford and countless other schools have condemned long-standing names of buildings, from residential halls to graduate schools, all on racial grounds.
For Bruce Wexler, professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine, the question is easy to answer. He believes the names of buildings form part of a “symbolic space,” the larger environment in which we live. According to Wexler, people function and feel better in environments that resonate with their sense of self, so the names that help create those environments can be of utmost importance.
Wexler believes students today may feel an intense contradiction between the names of their school’s buildings — many of which honor men who would abhor today’s diverse student bodies — and their universities’ professed values. They advocate for new names that better reflect current demographics. On the other hand, many alumni see the existing names as an integral part of their identity and college experience.
At both Yale and Princeton, communities remain largely divided over questions of renaming. At Yale, the controversy surrounds Calhoun College, named for John C. Calhoun, class of 1804; at Princeton it’s focused on the Woodrow Wilson School of International & Public Affairs, named for Woodrow Wilson.
Both the debates on Calhoun and Wilson center around the men’s views on race. Calhoun, the seventh vice president of the United States, was an ardent advocate of slavery. He argued that slavery was not a necessary evil but a “positive good,” and campaigned for the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which would force free states to return escaped slaves. In the House of Representatives, he once proudly declared slavery to be “the most safe and stable basis for free institutions in the world.” At the same time, he is regarded by historians as a brilliant statesman, one of three senators known as the “Great Triumvirate” — Calhoun, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster.
The case regarding Wilson, the country’s 28th president, is perhaps more complex. He too was a proud racist. His five-volume series History of the American People reads glowingly of the Ku Klux Klan, he re-segregated the federal government and he saw interracial marriage as possessing the potential to “degrade the white nations.”
Wilson, however, was much more tied to Princeton than Calhoun was to Yale. Both were alumni of their respective institutions, but Wilson served first as a professor and then as Princeton’s president. He helped its expansion into a full-scale university, created academic majors and introduced small-group classes.
For alumni, the trouble has been how to address this complex history. In other words, are these names merely part of a complex history of American slaveholding and racism, or do they unjustly honor some of its worst participants?
John C. Calhoun, class of 1804, was the seventh vice president of the United States and a prominent advocate of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. (Irene Jiang, Photography Editor)
Today, when Calhoun student Eli Ceballo-Countryman ’18 speaks with alumni of the college, they ask her why she doesn’t love it. Her response startles them.
“I do love it. It has the best courtyard, community and people,” she says earnestly in response. “The name should still change, though.”
For Ceballo-Countryman, moving from Old Campus to Calhoun after her freshman year was a transformative experience. She said when she arrived at Yale, as a black Latina woman, the idea that Calhoun would have despised her presence on campus served only to motivate her. After moving to Calhoun this year, though, her opinion has changed.
“There hasn’t been a day this year that I don’t think about John C. Calhoun. My attitude worked well when I lived [on Old Campus], but it wasn’t sustainable,” she said. “This would be an interesting argument if we were discussing a dining hall or lecture room, but this is supposed to be a home for black students.”
On Sept. 25, 1933, when the first seven residential colleges — Branford, Calhoun, Davenport, Jonathan Edwards, Pierson, Saybrook and Trumbull — opened their doors for the first time, racial diversity was not on the Yale administration’s list of priorities. In the decade prior to the new colleges’ construction, dining hall arrangements were in disarray and almost half of Yale freshmen had to live off-campus due to overcrowding. It was not until a generous $20 million dollar gift from philanthropist Edward Harkness, class of 1897 — a donation worth over $360 million in today’s dollars — that the college system was created.
James Angell, Yale’s president at that time, wanted to name some of the new colleges to honor famous Yale alumni, but he admitted a fear of an “acute controversial atmosphere.” He hoped to avoid controversy by choosing names of famous historical figures rather than living individuals who could still tarnish their names. A special “nomenclature committee” deliberated for more than a year in deciding who to honor.
In the end, from more than 200 years of alumni, Yale chose to honor just two: John C. Calhoun, class of 1804, and Jonathan Edwards, class of 1720. Edwards was seen as Yale’s foremost graduate in the field of theology; Calhoun in statecraft. At the time, the committee also considered William Taft, class of 1878, the only man to have served as both a U.S. president and a Supreme Court justice. But because he had just died in 1930, the committee concluded he did not have enough time to be judged by history.
So, they went for what they believed to be safer choice, and Calhoun College was born.
Calhoun College was named in 1933 under James Angell, Yale's 14th president. (Yale Daily News)
Now, instead of a “nomenclature committee,” the decisions of whether to rename Calhoun College and what to name the new residential colleges are up to one body: the Yale Corporation. Composed of 19 members, the Corporation — which acts as the governing board and policymaking body for Yale — includes the president of the University, 10 successor trustees who serve up to two six-year terms, six alumni fellows who are elected by the alumni for staggered six-year terms, and the governor and lieutenant governor of the State of Connecticut.
The Corporation met in February to discuss issues of naming but, due to institutional by-laws, cannot come to a decision on any given issue until discussing it at two or more meetings. University President Peter Salovey told the Yale Daily News that he expects a decision by the end of the academic year.
The Yale Corporation might have the final say, but that hasn’t stopped both students and alumni from being active in the debate over the past several months. And alumni voices have been amongst the loudest in the debates so far. Seventeen of the 19 members on the Corporation are Yale alumni, so the alumni community is necessarily involved in any decision-making process at Yale. In preparation for the naming decisions, the Corporation has also conducted listening sessions, where members of the Yale community, including alumni, can express their views.
Malcolm Ashley ’81, a black alumnus who has been vocal against changing the name of Calhoun, thinks alumni input should take precedence in concerns over naming.
“Students don’t get to enforce a fiat on the history of those whose shoulders they stand on,” Ashley said over the phone. “Every African-American at Calhoun is standing on my shoulders and every black before them. The young don’t get to change the history of the old.”
“Guess what?” he continued, “None of them met a Klansman. They haven’t been shot at or spit on, or met Martin Luther King Jr.”
Some students see alumni views as much less relevant. As alumni do not live on campus or currently attend Yale, they believe alumni should have less of a say in deciding the fate of issues pertinent to campus climate.
“As valuable as their opinion is, they’re out of touch with current campus climate,” Carolina Rivera said. “I think that without being here this year, they don’t have the right to make a decision.”
But in spite of students like Rivera vocalizing that opinion, alumni — in both the Calhoun and new college naming debates — are claiming their spot in the Name Game.
“Students don’t get to enforce a fiat on the history of those whose shoulders they stand on. Every African-American at Calhoun is standing on my shoulders and every black before them. The young don’t get to change the history of the old.”
—Malcolm Ashley '81, Calhoun alumnus
During the last 10 minutes of breakfast on the morning of Jan. 25, 2016, technicians from the Yale University Art Gallery removed the portrait of John C. Calhoun from the back wall of the Calhoun College dining hall, where it had hung undisturbed for around 80 years.
The act elicited applause from the few students present in the dining hall. None threw tantrums, accosted the handymen or angrily questioned Calhoun Master Julia Adams. From the viewpoint of a casual observer, students seemed pleased. Those that weren’t hid it well.
In the debate over whether or not to rename Calhoun, many alumni are choosing to not to hide their views. In fact, they’re doing the opposite. The “Calhoun Listserv,” a forum which was first established as a way for members of the Calhoun classes of 1976 through 1982 to stay in touch, has become a gathering place for alumni seeking to share their thoughts on the campus discussion. From Aug. 30, 2015 to Dec. 9, 2015, approximately 350 messages from 100 alumni were exchanged on the private server.
Edward Bouchet was the first African-American to earn a PhD from an American university. He earned his degree in physics from Yale in 1876.
The majority of messages in the server during that time frame — which were forwarded in their entirety to the News — are against changing the name of Calhoun, with justifications ranging from a fear of revisionist history, the need for Yale students to understand the inherent unfairness of life and the concern that changing one name will only lead to future name changes.
“As an alumni group, we were very concerned by the vocal minority of current Yale students who demand these as rights, while belittling those who do not agree they are entitled to them,” Mark Richards ’79 said.
Richards added that he believes students are unfit to make naming decisions, citing lack of real-world experience. “Wanting to change the world for the better is admirable,” he said. “But those with little real-world experience will always fail to improve upon it.”
For Amalia Halikias ’15, renaming Calhoun sets a dangerous precedent. She noted that from her experience at Yale, she believes Yale students are often wrong and student opinions are not always relevant.
“It’s not that I think that Yale should dismiss any argument because it comes from students. They should check to see that each argument is valid in its own right,” she said. “They should not assume that a certain number of students believing something automatically legitimizes that view.”
Numerous students interviewed, though, said that if viewpoints like Halikias’ influence the decision this year, the issue will only resurface again. They noted that while Yale as an institution moves slowly, student protests on issues relating to racial justice have yielded what they consider positive results.
Following protests by the Black Student Alliance at Yale in 1980, Pierson’s courtyard was renamed “Lower Court” from “Pierson Slave Quarters.” And 12 years later, in response to a student complaint, Calhoun College removed a panel from the stained-glass windows in the common room that depicted a shackled slave kneeling at Calhoun’s feet.
“We have to learn that adhering to tradition and blindly holding on is a detriment to progress,” said Isaiah Genece ’17. “Yale is creating students to change the world and take things that were old and make them new.”
On Jan. 22, 2016, Yale University Art Gallery technicians removed the portrait of John C. Calhoun that had hung in the college dining hall for nearly a century. (Kaifeng Wu, Photography Editor)
While the YUAG technicians were working to remove the portrait of Calhoun, half a mile away, on the corner of Canal and Prospect streets, another slightly larger construction project was taking place.
The construction of Yale’s two new residential colleges, announced in 2008 and begun in 2014, has advanced slowly but prompted many questions. While the colleges are slated to be completed in the fall of 2017, their names have not yet been chosen. The ultimate responsibility for naming them lies, once again, with the Yale Corporation.
In October 2014, with construction moving forward, President Salovey invited all alumni to suggest names. Over 2,500 responses flowed in.
Yung Wing, class of 1854, was the first Asian-American to graduate from Yale.
Two of the respondents were Jeania Ree Moore ’12 and Ivy Onyeador ’11. For them, and other alumni of color, Salovey’s offer was an opportunity to challenge the long-standing, stagnant narrative of college names and institutional memory.
Their letter, addressed to the President’s Office and the Yale Corporation and published in The Huffington Post, advocated for Yale’s diverse history to be taken into account when deciding names. In the letter, they suggested four names — two African-Americans, one Native American and one white woman — saying such names would continue the tradition of naming colleges after notable Yalies while changing the current narrative. They also noted that eight of the 12 existing residential colleges are named after white Protestant men who either supported slavery as slaveholders or were apologists for the institution of slavery. Over 3,300 alumni have signed on to the letter.
“The naming of new colleges is an unprecedented opportunity to remember figures in Yale’s past that diversify the history remembered in residential college names,” the letter reads, adding that the new names could “claim that Yale’s past speaks to its present and future identity.”
On April 6, 2015, Christopher Lapinig ’07 LAW ’13 and Kaozouapa Elizabeth Lee ’11 co-created the website “New Yale Colleges,” which showcases the names from the letter and further advocates four more options. Among the names suggested are Mary Goodman, the first donor of color to Yale College; Yung Wing, class of 1854, Yale’s first Asian graduate; and Henry Roe Cloud, class of 1910, the first Native American graduate of Yale College.
Lapinig noted that the website serves primarily as a clearinghouse for potential college names, but it is not exhaustive, and he does not expect all communities to be represented by the final two names chosen.
“We didn’t want it to be an oppression Olympics or a zero-sum game where different alumni groups were trying to pitch different alumni to name colleges after,” Lee said. “We were of the opinion that we shouldn’t be advocating for a certain type of college, but rather saying we need to frame the discussion about diversifying names and incorporating all communities of color.”
“There has long been appetite for alumni to be more plugged in than just one stray survey from the President’s Office, after which many of us didn’t hear anything. The process has been fairly opaque and less collaborative with alumni than many of us would hope.”
—Christopher Lapinig ’07 LAW ’13
Many alums, however, have pushed back against demands for diverse new college names. They expressed a worry of “diversity for diversity’s sake.”
Michael Knowles ’12 said he worried of a “melanin test” with regards to the naming of the new colleges. He noted that as there are countless impressive Yale alumni of a variety of intellectual stripes and physical appearances, he thinks it would be “very shallow and patronizing” to select someone for the color of their skin.
“Naming a college after the first African-American, Native American or woman to do something … it seems a stark perversion to Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream that a man should not be judged the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” he said.
In an interview with the Yale Herald in 2012, Jonathan Holloway, then Dean of Calhoun College, said that what he would not want to see was “to have these two colleges — that already seem to Yale students so far away — to have one of them be named after an African-American alum, and the other to be named after, say, a white woman … Because then you have a situation where there might be some kind of a weird culture coming out of [students saying], ‘Oh you’re in one of ‘those colleges.’”
Holloway did not respond to requests for comment on his current opinion.
Henry Roe Cloud, class of 1910, was the first Native-American to graduate from Yale.
In December 2014, Holloway announced that he formed two groups to advise him on practical questions relating to the opening of the new colleges. The first group, a steering committee, includes students, faculty, staff and recent alumni. Its job is to articulate the questions that need answers before the opening of the colleges. The second one, a smaller working group made up of only staff, will investigate potential answers to those questions.
All four alumni chosen for the steering committee are in close proximity to Yale: two are staff members, one is enrolled in the Law School and the other teaches at a private day school not far from Yale.
The teacher, Alex Werrell ’13, said that while he was unable to characterize the group’s discussions, he felt that suggesting names for colleges as an alumnus was the perfect way to influence an alma mater.
Even with four local alumni named to the steering committee and Salovey’s 2014 email soliciting input, the process — and the amount of input and power actually wielded by the alumni community — is far from clear.
Lapinig, one of the alumni behind the “New Yale Colleges” website, noted that he had not heard about the task force that Holloway established, and added that he hoped the administration would seek the opinions of alumni not in the New Haven area.
“Overall there is frustration about the process from the alumni perspective,” Lapinig said. “There has long been appetite for alumni to be more plugged in than just one stray survey from the President’s Office, after which many of us didn’t hear anything. The process has been fairly opaque and less collaborative with alumni than many of us would hope.”
At Georgetown, unlike at Yale or Princeton, students have managed to rename buildings on racial grounds. After a large student sit-in in November, the university agreed to rename Mulledy Hall and McSherry Hall, residence halls named for Georgetown Presidents Thomas Mulledy and William McSherry — men who sold 272 slaves, in part to eliminate the university’s debt. Today, the buildings have the provisional names of “Freedom Hall” and “Independence Hall,” while their permanent names are under debate.
What was most remarkable in the Georgetown case was the speed at which the administration responded to students’ demands: the day after the sit-in began, President John J. DeGioia announced the university would change the names of the buildings.
Candace Milner, Georgetown ’16, who was involved with the student protests, said while she was pleased the names were revoked, she feels the university only acted when it felt its reputation was at stake. She noted that “it took students getting publicity for [the university] to move at the urgency it should have been moving in the first place.”
Grace Hopper, who earned a PhD in mathematics from Yale in 1930, was a prominent computer scientist and naval officer.
But Rev. David Collins, a professor at Georgetown who chairs the group tasked with making recommendations for renaming buildings, attributes the speed of the decision not only to the students, but also to the willingness of key constituencies to agree to the change, citing the long-standing Jesuit community.
“Maybe they’re putting up more of a fight at Yale,” he said.
Collins’ guess is not wrong. And at Yale, concerns are not just coming from alumni.
Jay Gitlin ’71 MUS ’74 GRD ’02, a scholar of American cultural history who teaches the popular course “Yale and America,” noted that as a historian, he is generally averse to name changes. Gitlin said although he doesn’t think his opinion should count more than others’ opinions, there lies potential danger in a name change.
“There’s much frustration about race relations in this country, and I think a lot of young people are very frustrated and that’s the primary reason we’re seeing this,” he said. “As a historian, my impulse and every inclination is to be opposed to the idea of erasing history. I don’t think that’s a good idea; I think that has poor consequences.”
One of the first people Augie Rivera met at Yale when he finally arrived in the fall of 1980 was his roommate, Roosevelt Thompson ’84. The two would be roommates for the next three years.
During that time, Thompson — a black student who graduated from Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas — reached great heights at Yale. He was not only a Rhodes Scholar but also a Truman Scholar, a first-round pick to Phi Beta Kappa, a freshman counselor, a member of the JV football team, chairman of the Calhoun College Council, a chairman in the Yale Senior Class Council, winner of the Hart Lyman Prize, secretary of Black Athletes at Yale and an intern for then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton LAW ’73.
Thompson never graduated from Yale. During spring break of his senior year, he died in a car accident.
In a later documentary, Hillary Clinton LAW ’73 said he was “truly one of the most remarkable human beings I have ever, ever known.”
The cause to rename Calhoun College for Roosevelt Thompson gained traction after Alex Zhang ’18 published an op-ed on the subject in the Yale Daily News. In the piece, Zhang, a fellow alum of Little Rock Central High School, argues that Yale should show it values its students while they are students, not just when they are famous alums. In essence, supporters for Roosevelt Thompson College challenge the dominant framework that post-graduation merit should be evaluated.
Roosevelt 'Rosey' Thompson, a former student in Calhoun College, was a member of the Phi Beta Kappa society and played varsity football at Yale. Thompson died in a tragic car accident just months before his graduation.
“I’m of the opinion that the Yale degree is valuable not primarily for how it helps you gain prestige or money or power, but rather for how it opens doors for you and fills students’ lives with a sense of possibility,” Zhang said. “It just seems like when we talk about Yale we kind of forget why we’re here. It’s to have a great four years and to make something really beautiful in those four years, to give yourself to a cause, to become a great scholars, to serve your community.”
In the wake of the op-ed, students and alumni have rallied to support the cause of Roosevelt Thompson. Students, as well as friends of Thompson’s during his time at Yale, have written to the News and shared posts on social media. During listening sessions to discuss the potential renaming of Calhoun College and the naming of the two new residential colleges, Thompson’s name was a pervasive presence.
Zhang said that based on the responses he has received from students and alumni to his op-ed, Roosevelt Thompson College has proved largely unifying.
Slade Mead ’84, the producer of the Roosevelt Thompson documentary Looking for Rosey, visited Yale and spent time with Calhoun students. Mead, an old friend of Thompson’s, said, “I would always ask myself, ‘What would Rosey do?’ When I interviewed people [for the documentary], I found out other people had the same feeling. There’s something really special there.”
For Ceballo-Countryman, excitement around Roosevelt Thompson runs in the family; her mother had Thompson as a freshman counselor. While in favor of changing the name of Calhoun College to Roosevelt Thompson College, she is aware of the need to preserve the history of the name though another method.
“We can have a relation to history without honoring people,” she said. “There’s a difference between having Calhoun on our archways versus putting him on a plaque or historical exhibit in a basement.”
Ceballo-Countryman said that if the name is not changed now, she believes the issue will only continue to resurface in the future.
She asked: “How much more time and energy does Yale want to spend on the question?”