Backlash On Campus After Yale Keeps Calhoun College

Apr 30, 2016

After Yale announced it would not be changing the name of Calhoun College, university students held a symbolic renaming ceremony on the Yale campus on Friday.
Credit DOWN Magazine

Yale University has announced it will not be changing the name of Calhoun College, one of the university’s 12 residential communities -- drawing protests from some students, who have spent the academic year advocating for the name to be changed.

Calhoun College is named after John C. Calhoun, an American statesman who was also known as a vigorous supporter of slavery, even calling the institution a “positive good.” Yale’s administration first started discussions about the name of Calhoun College in August, after an online petition began circulating to change the name. Then on Wednesday at about 5:30 pm  -- after the workday was over, and the admitted students visiting Yale had gone home -- the school announced the name would stay. Some students, who were getting ready for final exams, saw the timing as a tactic to minimize their capacity to dissent.

“I’m still furious,” says Kinsley McNulty, a sophomore at Yale who is African-American. “People come up to me and ask me like, my really good friends, how am I doing and…we just start simultaneously laughing. Because we know neither of us is doing okay.”

The announcement came after protests this fall over what some students called a culture of racism on campus drew over a thousand people. The school also had months of conversation and “listening sessions” about how Yale’s colleges should be named. McNulty says after the numerous discussions on campus, leaving the name the same was an insult to students’ time and efforts.

“They made it seem like our ideas were going to be taken into account,” says McNulty. “But in the message we received back yesterday, it made it seem like all our concerns, all our opinions, weren’t really listened to at the end of the day.”

Elisia Ceballo-Contryman is a sophomore at Yale and part of Calhoun College. She felt the same way. “There’s no way I could convey to you the amount of labor and time and emotion and pain and, frankly, GPA points that have been lost this past year,” she says. “Black students will be sleeping in Calhoun College tonight after being dragged through that ‘discussion’…and being faced with an administration that makes no change.”

On Friday some students took matters into their own hands and held a protest where they ceremonially un-named Calhoun College. Protesters nailed dozens of signposts on the lawn in front of the college with the names of people of color who had been associated with Yale University -- like bell hooks, the prominent social theorist who once taught at the school. Hundreds of students sang and chanted outside the college building. At one point, a speaker declared the building’s name was gone -- at least, to them.

In a conference call this week, Yale President Peter Salovey said keeping the name of Calhoun College would force Yale to confront its history instead of shying away from it “and no longer having this salient reminder of the stain of slavery and our own university’s participation in it.”

“Ours is a nation that often refuses to face its own history of slavery and racism. Yale is part of that history,” said Salovey, in a press release. “We cannot erase American history but we can confront it, teach it and learn from it. The decision to retain Calhoun College’s name reflects the importance of this vital educational imperative.”

Critics say there’s a difference between acknowledging the history of slavery and celebrating or honoring one of slavery’s greatest defenders. At a closed-door meeting to press on Thursday (where one estimate suggested 1,000 students were present), one student asked if the goal was to recognize the problems of Calhoun’s legacy, the university should rename the college after one of his former slaves. Another said that the university should include an African-American history class in its required classes, rather than expect students of color to do unpaid labor explaining racism to their white colleagues. Other students wore tape over their mouths, to show that they were tired of talking. Meanwhile, the hashtag #wrongmoveyale began trending in New Haven and got picked up by notable civil rights activist and Baltimore mayoral candidate DeRay McKesson.

Along with the decision not to change the name of Calhoun College, Yale made some other announcements about residence life. The school said that the leaders of the residential colleges would no longer be called “master” -- a term that was recently abandoned by Princeton last fall -- because of the word’s connotations with ownership and control. The university will also name one of its two upcoming residential colleges after Anna Pauline Murray, an African-American civil rights activist.

But the other new college being built will be named after Benjamin Franklin, who had only an honorary degree from Yale and was a slaveowner before he became an abolitionist.

That choice also drew anger from some students given the amount of time they’ve protested against symbols of slavery on campus. Yale President Peter Salovey said the decision was made to honor the generosity of a major donor “who considers Franklin a personal role model.”

In the meeting where students told Salovey how they felt about the decision, the decisions to keep Calhoun College and to name Franklin College seemed to get equal backlash. Video from the meeting from student group DOWN at Yale shows students tossing Monopoly money in the air as Salovey entered the room, to protest the process by which Franklin College was named. Students wore shirts and t-shirts celebrating famous singer Aretha Franklin, who also received an honorary degree from Yale, and echoed her musical demand for “Respect.”  

Some said in light of the fact that Calhoun and Franklin Colleges would be on campus, the celebration of Anna Pauline Murray felt hollow.

Kimberly Goff-Crews, Yale’s vice president of student life, said that she admired the students’ “effort to come out and express how they feel about the decision.” She added that they “were passionate, focused and showed a great love of Yale.”