Yale: Beyond parody

Yale University President Peter Salovey solemnly addressed “the Yale community” by email in the early evening hours last night. He had a portentous announcement. Among other things, Yale has reached a decision on whether to retain the title “master” to refer to the teachers taking up the mantle at Yale’s residential colleges. You can feel the brain cells sloughing off as you read the deliberation that went into taking the long way around to arrive at the wrong conclusion in the current fashion. It’s the tribute that knowledge pays to ignorance.

That’s not quite the way the New York Times reports the matter in “Yale defies calls to rename Calhoun College” or Inside Higher Ed in “Yale keeps name for college that honors a slavery apologist.” But it seems to me the most notable aspect of President Salovey’s announcement.

President Salovey addresses this issue as the first of three before the university: (a) the title of “master” in the residential colleges, (b) the name of Calhoun College, and (c) the names for Yale’s two new residential colleges. “These decisions,” he explains, “are the product of extensive consultation involving students, faculty, alumni, administrators, and the fellows of the Yale Corporation.”

He prefaces the big decisions with some background: “In October 2014, I first wrote to solicit your advice on naming the new colleges, which will welcome students in 2017. Addressing the freshman class last fall, in the midst of conversations about understanding our nation’s history of slavery, Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway and I talked about memorials on our own campus, in particular Calhoun College. Established in 1932, the college’s name commemorates John C. Calhoun, a Yale Class of 1804 graduate, statesman, and political theorist, who, while serving as a member of the House of Representatives, senator, and vice president of the United States, was a prominent advocate for and defender of the repugnant institution of slavery.”

It’s good of President Salovey to let us know he finds the institution of chattel slavery “repugnant.” We might otherwise have suspected he was a closet sympathizer.

One can infer that the “master” issue came last: “Our community’s engagement with the issues related to residential college names led us also to examine the title of ‘master,’ the honorific designation for the head of each college. The title is rooted in ancient and medieval traditions of learning, but it is also associated with the ownership of slaves.” I think this decision reflects the exhaustion that had set in at this point:

The term “master,” when used to describe the role in the residential colleges, will be changed to “head of college.”

The use of “master” as a title at Yale is a legacy of the college systems at Oxford and Cambridge. The term derives from the Latin magister, meaning “chief, head, director, teacher,” and it appears in the titles of university degrees (master of arts, master of science, and others) and in many aspects of the larger culture (master craftsman, master builder). Some members of our community argued that discarding the term “master” would interject into an ancient collegiate tradition a racial narrative that has never been associated with its use in the academy. Others maintained that regardless of its history of use in the academy, the title—especially when applied to an authority figure—carries a painful and unwelcome connotation that can be difficult or impossible for some students and residential college staff to ignore.

Among the many comments considered on this matter, the thoughts and recommendations of the current Council of Masters, the twelve heads of the existing residential colleges, were especially salient. The council deliberated at length, informed by a multitude of discussions with students, staff, faculty, and fellows, as well as by reflections submitted to an online site open to all members of each residential college community. The council also monitored similar discussions at other colleges and universities, although its members were determined to arrive at their recommendations bearing in mind Yale’s distinctive traditions and culture.

The council found that making a recommendation to change the title was far from simple. People held a wide range of views, not as strongly correlated as some might have predicted with circumstances of age, race, or position in the college community. Nothing about the term itself is intrinsically tied to Yale’s history prior to 1930, or to the relationships that students of each generation have formed or will form with the individuals who lead their colleges. Moreover, a decision to stop using the term “master” does not compromise the study of larger historical issues. In short, the reasons to change the title of “master” proved more compelling than the reasons to keep it, and the current masters themselves no longer felt it appropriate to be addressed in that manner.

Not incidental to the discussion was the task of finding an alternative title that speaks to the definition and responsibilities of the office. In this respect, “head of college” is the most logical and straightforward choice. In its favor is that archival records show that “head” and “headship” were placeholders for the title in the original planning documents. Heads of college may be addressed as professor, doctor, or Mr. or Ms., as applicable or as they prefer.

The name of Calhoun College survives, but the university will administer justice to Calhoun in another form:

Many alumni and current students of Calhoun College believe passionately that the name constitutes present honor paid to an egregious defender of slavery, and it is an offensive and oppressive reminder of racial subordination that should be removed. I share many of these convictions, but disagree with the conclusion. To ensure that our community acquires a deeper, more consistent, and more explicit understanding of our institution’s past, Yale will begin an interactive history project, starting with an examination of the legacy of John C. Calhoun. The project will rely for its implementation on our scholars, students, and staff. We will create a dynamic digital platform to illuminate the lesser-known people, events, and narratives behind the familiar facades we see as we walk through the campus. This project will evolve over time, elucidating those aspects of our campus’s history about which we can be proud, but also those that we find troubling.

We will also hold a juried competition, open to the entire Yale community, to select a work of art that will be displayed permanently on the grounds of Calhoun College. In this competition, I will ask entrants to propose works that respond to the realities and consequences of Calhoun’s life. I will encourage the jury to give the widest possible consideration to different creative approaches. A member of Yale’s artistic community will serve as chair of the jury, which will include student, faculty, staff, and alumni representatives.

These efforts join with the ongoing work of the Committee on Art in Public Places, which is assessing artistic representations across our campus and making recommendations for ways that art can help us to engage with and understand our past.

Well, master that, if I may say so.

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