Case Study

Yale University students demand the renaming of Calhoun College


In 2015, student activists campaigned for the renaming of a residential college commemorating John C. Calhoun, a prominent proponent of slavery before the Civil War. After initially denying the request, Yale President Peter Salovey later announced that a 12-member committee, composed of faculty, alumni, staff, and one undergraduate and graduate student, would be tasked with deciding proper future action. The committee held dozens of meetings, listening sessions, and public forums with students, alumni, staff, and faculty; pored over hundreds of comments solicited from the campus community; and worked with university archives to understand the campus’s historic approach to naming buildings. After four months, it released a report that outlined a new set of principles on renaming university buildings and symbols. In December 2016, Salovey tasked three advisers with reviewing the Calhoun case with the report in mind. By February 2017, Yale announced that it would rename Calhoun College to honor Grace Murray Hopper, a Yale Ph.D., pioneering computer scientist, and rear admiral in the U.S. Navy.

PEN America Analysis

While the procedure for naming or renaming buildings is not exactly a free speech issue, some of the same issues of harm, inclusion, and transparency can arise and be instructive. And the stakes are similarly high. As the Yale Report of the Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming explained, “Erasing names is a matter of special concern, because those names are, in part, a catalog of the people whom the university has thought worthy of honor.” It is thus understandable that administrators hesitate to respond to every such call affirmatively. Yet changing names does not necessarily mean the erasure of a university’s past; on the contrary, the renaming process can involve a critical engagement with history that is neither superficial nor reactionary. By taking the time to develop a set of principles around renaming and by engaging with different stakeholders at the university, Yale can fairly claim that its renaming process was multipronged, thorough, and inclusive.

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