Yale University has chosen to rename Calhoun College, an undergraduate residence named for John C. Calhoun — and it’s doing so with grace. The school will replace the South Carolinian slavery supporter’s name with that of Grace Murray Hopper, nicknamed “Amazing Grace,” an alumna famous for her work in computer science as a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy.
Last spring, Yale said removing Calhoun’s name would “obscure the legacy of slavery rather than addressing it.” The recent change of course relies on principles a university-commissioned committee articulated in November, instructing Yale to evaluate whether a figure’s principal legacy is at odds with the school’s mission; whether that legacy was controversial when the individual lived or when Yale chose to honor him; and whether the building plays a substantial role in forming community at the university.
When it comes to Calhoun, the answer seems clear. Calhoun was more than a product of his time; he was an active proponent of slavery when many condemned it — and he is remembered for, above anything else, his staunch opposition to abolition. Naming the residential college after him, Yale has uncovered, was a controversial choice in 1932. And students who live in Calhoun College today are encouraged to celebrate their community by invoking Calhoun’s name — chanting it on the intramural field, wearing apparel emblazoned with it or calling themselves “Hounies.” The active celebration is different from keeping a name carved into the stone of a building, or even retaining a statue.
More important than the individual decision, though, are the broader principles Yale employed to reach it. By focusing on understanding how a figure fits into his era, our own and the years in between, these principles rely on a respect for history rather than a compulsion to erase it. Future petitions for name changes, Yale says, will rest on arguments grounded in archival research. And in the case of Calhoun, Yale has chosen to contextualize symbols of the college’s former namesake where they still appear — adding, for example, plaques that explain his place in the country’s past and in Yale’s — rather than remove them.
Hopper, a pioneering woman in the sciences, is also a fine pick to take Calhoun’s place. One question the choice raised was whether Yale could have advanced the contextualization it has pledged to undertake by honoring an African American alumnus as the new face of Calhoun; Hopper was white. That’s a thought to keep in mind as Yale names new buildings on a campus that celebrates diversity in its mission and strives to cultivate it in the classroom. Hopper College will add to an ongoing story, leaving plenty of room for future chapters
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE WASHINGTON POST