Yale University Expected to Review Decision on Keeping Slavery Advocate’s Name on Building


A Yale University panel declared Friday that the school should consider renaming buildings on campus “only in exceptional circumstances” and ensure that any removal of a name “does not have the effect of erasing history.”

The report from the Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming opened the door for Yale to revisit a controversial decision earlier this year not to rename a residential building, Calhoun College, that commemorates a prominent 19th century advocate of slavery and white supremacy.

John C. Calhoun, a Yale graduate, was a U.S. senator from South Carolina and a vice president who provided powerful political support for the preservation and expansion of slavery in antebellum America. His name was given to Calhoun College in 1931 to honor an alumnus whom Yale then termed a “statesman.”

But the Yale of the early 20th century, a bastion of white male privilege, was very different from the racially diverse and coeducational Yale of today. The transformation of the university helped fuel discussion about the Calhoun name, a conversation that gained momentum following the June 2015 massacre of African American parishioners at a church in Charleston, S.C. The shooting, which authorities call a hate crime, helped prompt South Carolina to take down a Confederate flag that had flown on the grounds of the state Capitol and prompted a review of Confederate imagery and racially charged symbols at schools and public institutions across the country.

After lengthy deliberation, Yale President Peter Salovey announced in April that the university would stick with the name of Calhoun College, saying at the time that he did not want to obscure Yale’s association with the legacy of slavery.

On Friday, Salovey announced that the university will move swiftly to review that decision. He appointed three advisers — two professors and an alumnus who lived at Calhoun College — to review the Calhoun case in light of the new report. Salovey said in a message to the community that he expects the Yale Corporation, which governs the university, would make a final decision early next year.

“Questions of naming and commemoration raise difficult but important discussions,” Salovey said. “These are complicated intellectual and moral issues faced by universities and other institutions around the world. From the outset, I have sought for Yale to bring its scholarly resources to bear on this subject of national and international import. My hope is that the principles announced today will prove useful not only to our community but to others as well.”

The Yale committee on renaming, chaired by law and history professor John Fabian Witt, included graduates, students, faculty and administrators. Its report was unanimous.

“History is one of the forms of knowledge at the core of the enterprise,” the committee declared. It continued:

To erase a university’s history is antithetical to the spirit of the institution. Erasing names is a matter of special concern, because those names are, in part, a catalogue of the people whom the university has thought worthy of honor. Removing such names may obscure important information about our past.

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Source: The Washington Post | Nick Anderson