After years of debate, the trustees of Yale University announced Saturday they will change the name of a residential college that honors a 19th century alumnus who was an ardent supporter of slavery.
The Ivy League university said it is renaming Calhoun College after trailblazing computer scientist Grace Murray Hopper, a mathematician who earned Yale degrees in the 1930s, invented a pioneering computer programming language and became a Navy rear admiral.
Yale said it was the final decision on a controversy over former Vice President John C. Calhoun’s legacy that had simmered for years and boiled over with campus protests in 2015. Four people were arrested in a peaceful protest as recent as Friday after they blocked street traffic.
The university’s president, Peter Salovey, announced in April that the school would keep Calhoun’s name. But, in August, he appointed an advisory panel to consider whether the name should be changed after all.
“We have a strong presumption against renaming buildings on this campus,” Salovey said Saturday. “I have been concerned all along and remain concerned that we don’t do things that erase history. So renamings are going to be exceptional.”
The board of trustees made its decision to rename the college Friday. Salovey, who sits on the board, said this was an exceptional case because Calhoun’s principal legacy is at odds with the university’s values and mission, and his views were contested in his own time. Calhoun was a member of the Yale class of 1804, who was a vice president, senator from South Carolina and a leading voice for those opposed to abolishing slavery.
“John C. Calhoun. White supremacist. Ardent defender of slavery as a positive good,” Salovey noted. “Someone whose views hardened over the course of his life, died essentially criticizing the Declaration of Independence and its emphasis on all men being created equal.”
The residential college was named for Calhoun when it was established in the early 1930s. The name received new attention as protesters on campuses around the country called for universities to address the legacies of historical figures, such as Woodrow Wilson at Princeton University in New Jersey.
Chris Rabb, a 1992 Yale graduate, has spoken out against the name since his own days living at Calhoun College when he successfully lobbied for the removal of a stained glass window depicting a black man in shackles kneeling before Calhoun. He said this week that just changing the name would do little.
“To me the real issue is context. How do you contextualize the choice made in the 1930s and the choice it made ever since to keep it?” said Rabb, an educator and state representative in Pennsylvania. “What does it mean now in terms of Yale’s connections to slavery and issues of social and racial justice in a diverse city?”
The controversy flared again last summer following the arrest of a black dining services worker, Corey Menafee, who used a broomstick to smash a stained-glass window at the college that depicted slaves. Criminal charges have since been dropped and Yale has rehired Menafee, who had described the image as offensive.
University officials said Saturday that the school will not remove symbols of Calhoun on campus, such as engravings and a statue atop the landmark Harkness Tower. It also won’t discourage alumni if they want to continue associating with the Calhoun name instead of Grace Hopper College.
But Salovey said he hopes the Yale community will “embrace Grace Hopper and get to know her better.” She graduated from Yale in 1930 and earned a doctorate in mathematics and mathematical physics there in 1934, just a year after Calhoun College was established. After teaching math at Vassar College in New York for nearly a decade, she enlisted in the Navy and “used her mathematical knowledge to fight fascism during World War II,” the university said.
A programming language her team invented in the 1950s was a predecessor to the widely-used COBOL. She retired as a Navy rear admiral at age 79, and died in 1992 at age 85. She was posthumously awarded the presidential medal of freedom last year.