Several campus names are more objectionable than John C. Calhoun—including Elihu Yale.
Yale University announced Saturday that it would change the name of Calhoun College, one of its original 12 residential colleges that opened in the early 1930s. Henceforth, the college will be named in honor of Grace Hopper, an early computer scientist and naval officer.
No sentient observer of the American academic scene could have been surprised by the move to ditch John C. Calhoun, the 19th-century South Carolina statesman after whom the college was originally named. On the contrary, the unspoken response was “What took them so long?”
Since last August, when Yale’s president, Peter Salovey, announced that he was convening a Committee to Establish Principles for Renaming—yes, really—the handwriting had been on the wall for Calhoun, a distinguished Yale alumnus who served as a congressman, senator, secretary of war, secretary of state and vice president.
Like Belshazzar before him, Calhoun had been weighed and found wanting. He may have been a brilliant orator and a fierce opponent of encroaching federal power, but he was also a slave holder. And unlike many of his peers, Calhoun argued that slavery was not merely a necessary evil but a “positive good,” because it provided for slaves better than they could provide for themselves.
You might, like me, think that Calhoun was wrong about that. But if you are Peter Salovey, you have to disparage Calhoun as a “white supremacist” whose legacy—“racism and bigotry,” according to a university statement—was fundamentally “at odds” with the noble aspirations of Yale University (“improving the world today and for future generations . . . through the free exchange of ideas in an ethical, interdependent, and diverse community”).
During a conference-call press briefing Saturday, and throughout the documents related to the Calhoun decision, officials have been careful to stress that the university operates with a “strong presumption against” renaming things. Because they do not seek to “erase history,” the officials insist, renaming things for ideological reasons would be “exceptionally rare.”
When you study the four principles Mr. Salovey’s committee came up with to justify a renaming, you can see why it took so long. The task, it seems clear, was to find a way to wipe away Calhoun College while simultaneously immunizing other institutions at Yale from politicized rebaptism.
Did the principal legacy of the honored person “fundamentally conflict” with the university’s mission? Was that legacy “contested” within the person’s lifetime? Were the reasons that the university honored him at odds with Yale’s mission? Does the named building or program play a substantial role in “forming community at Yale”?
Readers who savor tortuous verbal legerdemain will want to acquaint themselves with the “Letter of the Advisory Group on the Renaming of Calhoun College,” which is available online. It is a masterpiece of the genre.
Is it also convincing? I think the best way to answer that is to fill out the historical picture a bit. Nearly every Yale official who spoke at Saturday’s press briefing had to describe John Calhoun (1782-1850) as a “white supremacist.” Question: Who among whites at the time was not? Take your time.
Calhoun owned slaves. But so did Timothy Dwight, Calhoun’s mentor at Yale, who has a college named in his honor. So did Benjamin Silliman, who also gives his name to a residential college, and whose mother was the largest slave owner in Fairfield County, Conn. So did Ezra Stiles,John Davenport and even Jonathan Edwards, all of whom have colleges named in their honor at Yale.
Writing in these pages last summer, I suggested that Yale table the question of John Calhoun and tackle some figures even more obnoxious to contemporary sensitivities. One example was Elihu Yale, the American-born British merchant who, as an administrator in India, was an active participant in the slave trade.
President Salovey’s letter announcing that Calhoun College would be renamed argues that “unlike . . . Elihu Yale, who made a gift that supported the founding of our university . . . Calhoun has no similarly strong association with our campus.” What can that mean? Calhoun graduated valedictorian from Yale College in 1804. Is that not a “strong association”? (Grace Hopper held two advanced degrees from the university but had no association with the undergraduate Yale College.)
As far as I have been able to determine, Elihu Yale never set foot in New Haven. His benefaction of some books and goods worth £800 helped found Yale College, not Yale University. And whereas the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica praises Calhoun for his “just and kind” treatment of slaves and the “stainless integrity” of his character, Elihu Yale had slaves flogged, hanged a stable boy for stealing a horse, and was eventually removed from his post in India for corruption. Is all that not “fundamentally at odds” with the mission of Peter Salovey’s Yale?
Mr. Salovey stepped out of a board meeting briefly to join the conference call on Saturday. More in sadness than in anger he disparaged John Calhoun, praised Grace Hopper, and affirmed his commitment to diversity, free inquiry, etc. Then one of the reporters asked why he was renaming Calhoun College for a white woman, especially since February was Black History Month. Oh dear. Thanks so much, must get back to that board meeting now.
In “The Crack-Up,” F. Scott Fitzgerald comments that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” First-rate or not, the evolving politically correct circus at Yale does not offer a lot of support for that proposition.
Mr. Kimball is editor and publisher of the New Criterion and president and publisher of Encounter Books.