In 1933, when Yale University named one of its new residential colleges for the ardently pro-slavery statesman John C. Calhoun, at least one person was unexcited.
“I suppose that I ought/To have bayed at the moon/Singing the praises/of John C. Calhoun/But I cannot,” the writer Leonard Bacon confessed in a long poem written for the dedication, which went on to note the oddity of honoring the architect of Southern secession in an “abolitionist town” like New Haven, Connecticut.
That dissent was mild, compared with the passionate protests against the Calhoun name that swept Yale last year as part of an outcry on campuses around the world against historic names and symbols associated with slavery, colonialism and other forms of oppression.
Those controversies have receded on many campuses. And now Yale, where the renaming ordeal has been unusually drawn out, may finally be getting its own relief.
On Friday, the university announced a new procedure for considering the renaming of university buildings, along with an official reconsideration of the controversial decision last spring to keep the Calhoun name. A new — and final — verdict is expected early next year.
That policy requires anyone calling for a renaming to submit a formal application, including a dossier of historical research justifying the renaming according to a set of general principles created by an independent 12-person committee named in August by the university’s president, Peter Salovey, in response to continuing furor over the Calhoun decision.
Salovey, in an email, praised the committee’s report, which he said had shifted his earlier view that changing the Calhoun name, or any other, amounted to “effacing our history.”
The new principles “allow us to considering renaming a building in a way that preserves history, to remember but not to honor,” he said.
The report by the committee, which was not charged with making a specific recommendation on Calhoun, grows directly out of the turmoil at Yale. But it is also billed as the first at any university to elaborate general guidelines for evaluating when symbols of the past should, and should not, be altered.
The report strikes a generally cautious note, warning against what it calls morally self-congratulatory or even “Orwellian” erasures of the past. But it also cites Yale’s own long history of “creative destruction” of campus names and symbols, while offering a defense of renaming debates at a moment when some on the left and the right are increasingly dismissing them as self-indulgent distraction.
“This isn’t about symbolic politics, but about the mission of the university,” said John Fabian Witt, a historian at Yale Law School and the chairman of the committee. Fostering an inclusive campus, he said, “is the best way to approach the project of research and learning.”
The reaction to the new policy at Yale, where even the report acknowledges “a certain exhaustion” with the whole issue, remains to be seen.
But some historians who have been involved in similar debates elsewhere welcomed the report’s careful parsing of complex questions about history, memory and honor.
“They did a very good job fleshing out the issues and creating guideposts on how to deal with a question that is probably going to come up again and again,” said Annette Gordon-Reed, a historian at Harvard Law School and a member of a committee that voted last year to scrap that school’s seal, which honored a family of 18th-century slave owners.
David M. Kennedy, a historian at Stanford University and head of a committee that is considering calls to rename entities on that campus honoring Junipero Serra, the 18th-century priest who founded the California mission system, said he admired the report’s “humility” in the face of historical judgment, which is never final.
“Memory is contested because history is contested,” he said. “Controversy is built into the whole exercise of doing history.”
The Calhoun controversy has sharply divided the Yale community, with support for keeping the name generally running stronger among older alumni.
“I think Calhoun became a proxy for a broader feeling about political correctness on campus,” said G. Leonard Baker Jr., a 1964 Yale graduate and Calhoun alumnus who served on the renaming committee. (Calhoun himself graduated from Yale in 1804 but otherwise had little connection with the university, the report notes.)
But there was wide agreement across different groups, several committee members said, about the dangers of erasing history.
“That was something we heard from everyone, however they felt about renaming,” said Beverly Gage, a history professor who was among the more than 350 faculty members who signed a letter last spring criticizing the decision to keep the Calhoun name.
As an example of such erasure, the report cites Yale’s decision in the 1980s to alter a stained-glass window in a Calhoun common room, replacing the image of a slave in shackles kneeling at Calhoun’s feet with panes showing clouds.
“Calhoun was left in a place of honor,” Witt said. “But the thing that would allow you to see the honor was super-complex, or not deserved, was removed.” (The entire ensemble of windows was removed this summer, after an incident in which a dining hall worker smashed a pane showing slaves carrying bales of cotton; it will be replaced with a new work of art.)
Against that kind of “illiberal” alteration, which conceals or distorts the past, the report praises “liberal” ones, which show how values have changed: Last spring, for example, another Yale college, named for Ezra Stiles, an 18th-century president of Yale, installed a plaque memorializing the lives of his slave and two indentured servants.
The principles outlined in the report don’t generate automatic solutions but require historical interpretation and argument, starting with disentangling a person’s “principal legacy” from other aspects of his or her life that might be reviled. (Mahatma Gandhi, the report notes, “held starkly racist views about black Africans,” while Frederick Douglass spoke of what he considered Native Americans’ inferiority to African-Americans.)
The principles also call for considering a namesake within different time-frames: Why was the person honored, and was that choice controversial at the time? Were actions or attitudes that are now repellent also controversial during the individual’s life, or commonplace in society at the time?
As an example of an overly broad policy, Witt cited guidelines recently adopted at the University of Oregon allowing for potentially renaming buildings honoring anyone who demonstrated “discriminatory, racist, homophobic or misogynist views that actively promoted systemic oppression” or who “failed to take redemptive action,” among other expansive criteria.
“There’s a real risk that would catch up anyone alive before 1950,” Witt said.
The report’s own dossier of research on Calhoun and the history of his commemoration at Yale might be seen as pointing toward renaming the college.
But Gage said that whatever the ultimate outcome, the Calhoun debate was valuable as part of “a process of deep engagement with history,” which is always open to reinterpretation.
“You want to respect the past,” she said. “But there is room for change, too.”