|To the Yale Alumni Community,
Today I write to announce that the name of Calhoun College will be changed, and that we will honor one of Yale’s most distinguished graduates, Grace Murray Hopper ’30 M.A., ’34 Ph.D., by renaming the college for her. The university’s board of trustees—the Yale Corporation—and I made this decision at our most recent meeting. The decision to change a college’s name is not one we take lightly, but John C. Calhoun’s legacy as a white supremacist and a national leader who passionately promoted slavery as a “positive good” fundamentally conflicts with Yale’s mission and values. I have asked Jonathan Holloway, dean of Yale College, and Julia Adams, the head of Calhoun College, to determine when this change best can be put into effect.
This decision overrides my announcement in April of last year that the name of Calhoun College would remain. At that time, as now, I was committed to confronting, not erasing, our history. I was concerned about inviting a series of name changes that would obscure Yale’s past. These concerns remain paramount, but we have since established an enduring set of principles that address them. The principles establish a strong presumption against renaming buildings, ensure respect for our past, and enable thoughtful review of any future requests for change.
In August, I asked John Witt ’94 B.A., ’99 J.D., ’00 Ph.D., the Allen H. Duffy Class of 1960 Professor of Law and professor of history, to chair a Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming. After this committee completed its work, three advisors—G. Leonard Baker ’64 B.A. (Calhoun College); John Lewis Gaddis, the Robert A. Lovett Professor of Military and Naval History; and Jacqueline Goldsby, professor of English, African American Studies, and American Studies and chair of the Department of African American Studies—were charged with applying the Witt committee’s principles to the name of Calhoun College. The thoughtful and instructive reports produced by these two distinguished groups are available here.
As part of its work, the Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming studied similar conversations about naming and commemoration that have arisen in recent years at institutions such as Georgetown University, Harvard Law School, Princeton University, and the University of Texas at Austin. At these and other institutions of higher learning, certain names have changed, while others have not. Yale has learned from these situations while, necessarily, charting its own course.
The Witt committee outlines four principles that should guide any consideration of renaming: (1) whether the namesake’s principal legacy fundamentally conflicts with the university’s mission; (2) whether that principal legacy was contested during the namesake’s lifetime; (3) the reasons the university honored that person; and (4) whether the building so named plays a substantial role in forming community at Yale. In considering these principles, it became clear that Calhoun College presents an exceptionally strong case—perhaps uniquely strong—that allows it to overcome the powerful presumption against renaming articulated in the report.
Understanding Calhoun’s Legacy
The name of Calhoun College has long been a subject of discussion and controversy on our campus. John C. Calhoun 1804 B.A., 1822 LL.D. served the United States as vice president, secretary of state, secretary of war, and a U.S. senator. Yet he leaves behind the legacy of a leading statesman who used his office to advocate ardently for slavery and white supremacy.
When he learned of Calhoun’s death, Benjamin Silliman Sr. 1796 B.A., 1799 M.A., professor of chemistry at Yale and the namesake of another residential college, mourned the passing of his contemporary while immediately condemning his legacy:
“[Calhoun] in a great measure changed the state of opinion and the manner of speaking and writing upon this subject in the South, until we have come to present to the world the mortifying and disgraceful spectacle of a great republic—and the only real republic in the world—standing forth in vindication of slavery, without prospect of, or wish for, its extinction. If the views of Mr. Calhoun, and of those who think with him, are to prevail, slavery is to be sustained on this great continent forever.”(i)
Silliman’s conviction (shared by many other Americans) that Calhoun was one of the more influential champions of slavery and white supremacy speaks across the generations to us today. As a national leader, Calhoun helped enshrine his racist views in American policy, transforming them into consequential actions. And while other southern statesmen and slaveholders treated slavery as a “necessary evil,” Calhoun insisted it was a “positive good,” beneficial to enslaved people and essential to republican institutions. The legacy that Silliman decried was that of a man who shaped “the state of opinion” on this issue—ensuring that slavery not only survived but expanded across North America.
This principal legacy of Calhoun—and the indelible imprint he has left on American history—conflicts fundamentally with the values Yale has long championed. Unlike other namesakes on our campus, he distinguished himself not in spite of these views but because of them. Although it is not clear exactly how Calhoun’s proslavery and racist views figured in the 1931 naming decision, depictions in the college celebrating plantation life and the “Old South” suggest that Calhoun was honored not simply as a statesman and political theorist but in full contemplation of his unique place in the history of slavery. As the Witt report reminds us, honoring a namesake whose legacy so sharply conflicts with the university’s values should weigh especially heavily when the name adorns a residential college, which plays a key role in forming community at Yale. Moreover, unlike, for example, Elihu Yale, who made a gift that supported the founding of our university, or other namesakes who have close historical connections to Yale, Calhoun has no similarly strong association with our campus. Removing Calhoun’s name in no way weakens our commitment to honoring those who have made major contributions to the life and mission of Yale—another principle described in the Witt report.
The presidential advisors found “no Witt committee principles that weigh heavily against renaming,” “three committee principles that weigh heavily toward renaming, and a fourth that suggests the need to rename.” The advisors recommended unanimously that the name of Calhoun College be changed.
It is now clear to me, too, that the name of Calhoun College must change. Yale has changed magnificently over the past 300 years and will continue to evolve long after our time; today we have the opportunity to move the university forward in a way that reinforces our mission and core values.
In making this change, we must be vigilant not to erase the past. To that end, we will not remove symbols of Calhoun from elsewhere on our campus, and we will develop a plan to memorialize the fact that Calhoun was a residential college name for eighty-six years. Furthermore, alumni of the college may continue to associate themselves with the name Calhoun College or they may choose to claim Grace Hopper College as their own. As the Witt report states, “A university ought not erase the historical record. But a great university will rightly decide what to commemorate and what to honor, subject always to the obligation not to efface the history that informs the world in which we live.”
A Legacy of Innovation and Service: Grace Murray Hopper
In selecting a new name for the college at the corner of College and Elm streets, Yale honors the life and legacy of Grace Murray Hopper. Hopper was an exemplar of achievement in her field and service to her country. As we considered potential namesakes, the trustees and I benefited from hundreds of unique naming suggestions made by alumni, faculty, students, and staff who either advocated for a name change to this college or submitted ideas for the names of the two new residential colleges. This community input was indispensable: Hopper’s name was mentioned by more individuals than any other, reflecting the strong feeling within our community that her achievements and life of service reflect Yale’s mission and core values.
A trailblazing computer scientist, brilliant mathematician and teacher, and dedicated public servant, Hopper received a master’s degree in mathematics (1930) and a Ph.D. in mathematics and mathematical physics (1934) from Yale. She taught mathematics at Vassar for nearly a decade before enlisting in the U.S. Navy, where she used her mathematical knowledge to fight fascism during World War II. A collaborator on the earliest computers, Hopper made her greatest contributions in the realm of software. In 1952 she and her team developed the first computer language “compiler,” which would make it possible to write programs for multiple computers rather than a single machine. Hopper then pioneered the development of word-based computer languages, and she was instrumental in developing COBOL, the most widely used computer language in the world by the 1970s. Hopper’s groundbreaking work helped make computers more accessible to a wider range of users and vastly expanded their application. A naval reservist for twenty years, she was recalled to active service at the age of 60. Hopper retired as a rear admiral at the age of 79, the oldest serving officer in the U.S. armed forces at that time.
The recipient of Yale’s Wilbur Lucius Cross Medal, the National Medal of Technology, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, “Amazing Grace” Hopper was a visionary in the world of technology. At a time when computers were bulky machines limited to a handful of research laboratories, Hopper understood that they would one day be ubiquitous, and she dedicated her long career to ensuring they were useful, accessible, and responsive to human needs. An extraordinary mathematician and a senior naval officer, Hopper achieved eminence in fields historically dominated by men. Today, her principal legacy is all around us—embodied in the life-enhancing technology she knew would become commonplace. Grace Murray Hopper College thus honors her spirit of innovation and public service while looking fearlessly to the future.
The Calhoun issue is complex. There are substantive arguments on all sides. Good people—moral and principled people—can and will disagree about it. These disagreements, however great they may seem, should not prevent us from finding common ground. Our bonds as Yalies are greater than our opinions about a name or a building. Those bonds ensure that we will continue together the great work of “improving the world today and for future generations through outstanding research and scholarship, education, preservation, and practice.” This is our common ground.
President and Chris Argyris Professor of Psychology
(i) George Park Fisher, Life of Benjamin Silliman, M.D., LL.D., late professor of chemistry, mineralogy, and geology in Yale college: Chiefly from his manuscript reminiscences, diaries, and correspondence, Volume 2 (New York: C. Scribner and company, 1866), 98-99. Emphasis added.