When to Rename a Building, and Why

Yale adopts a new approach to deciding whether Calhoun College and other university properties need new names.

The courtyard of Calhoun College, Yale University.
The courtyard of Calhoun College at Yale University.


On Friday, a Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming, convened earlier this semester at Yale University, issued its final report. This group was not charged with deciding whether or not to rename Calhoun College, the residential unit christened in 1933 in honor of the influential pro-slavery politician John C. Calhoun, which has been a focus of renewed public controversy in the past year. Instead, the committee produced a framework for any and all future renaming decisions. The Yale Corporation has adopted the principles that the committee put forth, and the university’s president, Peter Salovey, has appointed a smaller committee to reconsider the Calhoun case in light of this group’s recommendations.

The Committee on Renaming’s deliberations, as the report makes evident, were politically fraught, with alumni, students, staff, and faculty offering wildly different feedback. “At one extreme, some members of the community insisted that the best principle would be a rule of no renamings at all, under any circumstances,” the report reads. “At the other pole, some interlocutors suggested that building names ought to change according to a regular schedule, perhaps every fifty years.” But the discussions were also deeply philosophical. The group—composed of faculty (many of whom are historians), alumni, and current undergraduate and graduate students—used the question of a possible Calhoun renaming as a test case to feel its way toward some ideas the members hope will be durable enough to serve the university in the future. Along the way, committee members looked at precedents for renaming both inside and outside Yale, as well as theories of historical memory.

Some aspects of the committee’s recommendations feel conservative and cautious—responsive to those who fear the university’s history will be lost in a wave of “politically correct” renaming. To judge by the packet of emails and web comments the committee included as an appendix, alumni seem to have been somewhat more inclined toward this position than students. “I am very distressed about the seemingly excessive ‘PC’ that is now going on at Yale,” one alum commented. “Maybe Yale will stop awarding Masters degrees. As for Bachelors degrees, many better PC options exist.” (Colorful examples aside, committee chair John Fabian Witt and member Jonathan Holloway were careful to point out in a conference call on Friday morning that generation and race were not always totally predictive of a person’s stance on the renaming issue.)

Striking a note of caution, the committee recommended that the university adopt “a strong presumption against renaming a building on the basis of the values associated with its namesake” and that renaming only be considered “in exceptional circumstances” in which a namesake fulfills certain criteria. If a namesake has “made major contributions to the University,” then “the presumption against renaming is at its strongest.” (That last, by the way, is a standard that Calhoun—a Yale alumnus, but not faculty or a donor—might not necessarily meet.) To overturn that presumption of permanence and continuity, any future group petitioning the university for renaming will need to address four principles. The idea is that a successful argument for renaming anything at Yale needs to meet more than one of these criteria. Even then, a decision to rename will not be automatic.

The first principle—“Is a principal legacy of the namesake fundamentally at odds with the mission of the University?”—requires people bringing renaming cases to argue that “the enduring consequences of the namesake in the world” are in conflict with Yale’s stated values. Here, “scholarly consensus,” the group writes, “is a powerful measure” of “legacy,” and negligible instances of negative influence—the group cites as one instance of a counterlegacy that should not be in any way disqualifying Frederick Douglass’ view that Native Americans were “easily ‘contented’ with small things such as blankets, and would ‘die out’ in any event”—should not outweigh a person’s larger contribution. In addressing this principle in the case of Calhoun, the smaller committee will have to debate whether Calhoun’s predominant legacy was as a pro-slavery secessionist or as a constitutional theorist. (The renaming committee was very careful not to take a stance on the Calhoun renaming issue, but the historical evidence it brought together feels—to this reader, anyway—like an argument for the former.)

The second principle—“Was the relevant principal legacy significantly contested in the time and place in which the namesake lived?”—hopes to mitigate presentism. “Such an evaluation,” the group writes, “does not commit the University to a relativist view of history and ethics,” but instead offers needed context. If Calhoun’s “principal legacy” was, indeed, the promotion of slavery, it seems fair to argue that “significant contestation” or what the committee terms “insistent and searching critiques”—advanced by his opposition in government and by abolitionist activists—were abundant during his own lifetime. “Paying attention to the standards of the time,” the committee writes, “usefully distinguishes those who actively promoted some morally odious practice from those whose relationship to such a practice was unexceptional.”

The third principle—“Did the University, at the time of a naming, honor a namesake for reasons that are fundamentally at odds with the mission of the University?”—tries to determine the original basis for the honorific. The committee cited as precedent for the inclusion of this principle the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s decision to change the name of Saunders Hall, named after William Saunders, a mid–19th century alum who may or may not have been a leader in the Ku Klux Klan. Even though Saunders’ history is itself a subject of uncertainty, UNC determined that those who had named the building had done so because they thought Saunders was a Klan leader and renamed the building on that basis. Original intention, this principle states, matters.

The committee’s research found that the university chose Calhoun as a namesake in 1933 in part because his legacy was “unlikely to engender controversy” at that time. The name, some thought, might even draw more students from the South: a “certain kind of diversification,” given the composition of the student body during the Great Depression. These intentions, which now appear misguided and (as the committee put it) “ironic” from our perspective, don’t necessarily contradict the university’s mission—another matter the smaller committee will need to discuss.

The principle that may take on a heavy weight in the new round of deliberations on the Calhoun renaming question is the final one: Does a building that meets the other criteria “play a substantial role in forming community at the University?” At Yale, as the report points out, residential colleges—unlike, say, monuments or even classroom buildings—are designed to be central to undergraduate students’ social and emotional lives. Students who live in Calhoun are encouraged to identify as “Hounies,” wear T-shirts and other paraphernalia featuring the name, and sing Calhoun songs. All of these activities are supposed to be harmless community-building exercises, but to some students of color and their allies, identifying with the Calhoun name feels like nothing of the sort.

The report is a thoughtful document that attempts to address a paradox central to the renaming question. When we’re making a decision about place names, which are traditionally intended to endow a building or a site with a sense of history and to last far into the future, how can we honor our beliefs without installing our own historically specific perspective as a new orthodoxy? It’s a safe bet that future generations will find us odious and confusing in unforeseen ways. (I think of this as the “history is coming for us all” problem.) The committee’s careful, scholarly report is a statement of belief that we can wrestle with this paradox on a case-by-case basis and in good faith—even if it can never be truly solved.

The smaller committee that will weigh these principles in relationship to the Calhoun question next semester will be made up of G. Leonard Baker, a Calhoun College alum (’64), former Yale trustee, and venture capitalist; professor of English, African American Studies, and American Studies Jacqueline Goldsby; and John Lewis Gaddis, a distinguished military and diplomatic historian on the faculty. This group of three will submit a recommendation to Salovey, who will take it to the Yale Corporation, which will have the final say on any Yale-related renaming decision. Yale expects to make its decision on the Calhoun renaming case “by early 2017.”