Over the weekend, Yale President Peter Salovey announced that the university will give Calhoun College, dedicated to the white supremacist and fervent slavery supporter John Calhoun, a new name: Hopper College, after the renowned computer scientist Grace Murray Hopper.
In the fall of 2015, Yale and other universities came under significant pressure to do what Yale has done this week: erase (or at least minimize) the legacies on campus of overtly racist figures. Back then, Yale, Princeton, and others refused to concede to most student and faculty demands. In a statement he made last April, Salovey said it was Yale’s “obligation” to retain Calhoun College’s original name, as it allowed students to confront the legacy of slavery.
So what changed?
Over the course of his campaign, Donald Trump disparaged political correctness. He mocked students’ demands for safe spaces and trigger warnings. In this way, when they decided against changing the names of certain campus buildings and landmarks, administrators at places like Yale and Princeton arguably sided with him.
Then Trump won the election. Since November, colleges and universities have been jockeying to issue resounding statements against Trump and safeguard their reputations as progressive institutions. Even though Yale officials say the renaming decision had nothing to do with the election, it’s undeniable that universities are navigating an entirely new set of circumstances now that President Obama is no longer in office—and now that Trump has brought race to the fore not only for minority students, but for white students as well. Under those new circumstances, Yale seems to have decided that the task of expunging Calhoun’s name from campus is more urgent than it was just 10 months ago.
“I think it’s impossible to divorce this decision from the political climate nationally,” said Kyle Yoder, who graduated from Yale in 2015. “In an age where we are increasingly aware that we are not living in a post-racial society, the legacy of John Calhoun becomes really hard to reconcile with Yale.”
In an interview, the University of Florida professor Ibram X. Kendi, winner of the 2016 National Book Award for his book Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, explained to me that, over the course of the past year, it has become increasingly difficult for Yale to take what he calls the “middle of the road” position: claiming to reject racist ideology while insisting on using Calhoun’s name as a tool for, in Salovey’s words, “teaching and learning about the most troubling aspects of [Yale’s] past.”
“Yale officials have tried to take this middle position between the anti-racist force that wants these memorials to be eliminated and the more racist force that champions Calhoun and confederate flags. But in taking that middle position they are increasingly being compared to the alt-right and to Trump,” Kendi said.
Because racist forces were galvanized by Trump’s election, Kendi suggested, anti-racist forces have responded in kind, moving further in the opposite direction than they would have if Hillary Clinton had been elected president. As this has happened, he said, the middle position—the one that straddles the line between racist and anti-racist forces—has ceased to exist.
During his tenure as head of Calhoun College from 2005 to 2014, Jonathan Holloway, now Yale’s dean, opposed changing the college’s name. As a scholar of African American history, he, like Salovey, felt the name would prompt important conversations about race relations in the United States. But, he has changed his mind.
“I’d been holding on to the belief that we as a society could have a sustained and thoughtful conversation about race, especially at a university. But nationally, people were not willing to have that conversation. My reasons for hanging on to the name ‘Calhoun’ were increasingly sounding too precious,” Holloway said.
In today’s political climate, with the widening gap between what Kendi calls racist and anti-racist forces, there is less and less room for nuance. Institutions like Yale have to move toward one side or the other.
Politically, the vast majority of Yale’s student body leans left. Overwhelmingly, students and recent alumni are happy that, on this issue, the administration has finally moved to join them. Conservative alumni I spoke with, however, were disappointed in the administration’s failure to stand by its original decision.
“We feared that the administration would lose its spine and cower to the demands of certain undergraduates to suppress the free expression of ideas on campus. Our fears have been proven correct. It seems this administration is unable to stand by its principles,” said Michael Knowles, who graduated from Yale in 2012.
It’s also important to consider the practical consequences for Yale retaining the name, “Calhoun College.” History shows that universities make decisions they think will bolster their reputations, grow their endowments, and increase their yield rates. As Yale prepares to issue acceptance letters to prospective members of the class of 2021, the vast majority of whom will likely oppose Trump, the university wants to make sure that it looks like a progressive institution.
Some of the most consequential policy changes at universities have emerged out of concern over prestige and yield rates. Take, for example, Yale’s and Princeton’s decisions to admit women in the late 1960s. In her book, Keep the Damned Women Out, Nancy Malkiel, a former dean of Princeton University, discusses Yale and Princeton’s motives for opening their classrooms to women.
“The ‘best boys’ in private and public high schools were beginning to show that they didn’t want to attend places that only had men,” Malkiel said in an interview with Princeton Alumni Weekly. “So they needed to figure out a way to regain their hold on these ‘best boys.’”
In 1963, six years before both Yale and Princeton decided to go co-ed, Harvard began issuing joint degrees to graduates of Radcliffe, a women’s college just a few blocks from Harvard yard. Immediately after Harvard made that change, yield rates at Yale and Princeton fell, and those administrations began searching for a solution. When attempts to convince two women’s colleges—Vassar and Sarah Lawrence—to relocate to their respective locations proved unsuccessful, both Yale and Princeton quickly decided to admit women.
With many of Yale’s current and future students, alumni, and faculty opposing Trump, Yale is under significant pressure to prove that it does not stand with his administration. Many other universities may soon find themselves in similar situations, looking for ways to visibly distance themselves from the president.
“I’m guessing that it’s a matter of time before the issue of renaming arises at other colleges—Harvard will be next in line, then perhaps Stanford,” said Jerome Karabel, a sociology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.
As Trump follows through on more promises he made on the campaign trail, universities will likely realize they can no longer have it both ways. Going forward, if they don’t do everything in their power to be anti-racist, they will look racist.