Tuesday, February 28, 2017

What’s in a Name? Calhoun College

Calhoun College  (Collection of the author)

Yale University has recently put an end to decades of controversy by renaming its Calhoun College after computer pioneer Grace Murray Hopper. When I wrote about the early history of Calhoun College, I mentioned this debate, whose origin lay in the fact that Calhoun, while twice Vice President of the United States, and adjudged a competent politician, was virulently pro-slavery, an attitude which has been met with increasing degrees of repugnance.

I should first explain the Yale residential college system, whose use of the term  “college” is quite confusing. Originally, there was the single undergraduate college, but in the 1920’s and 30’s Yale decided to follow the system used at Oxford and Cambridge of dividing the campus into units called residential colleges. These were basically glorified dormitories, but with many additional services, both social and academic.

Grace Hopper c.1960  (via Wikipedia)

The college system was funded by Edward Harkness, a Rockefeller partner and millionaire from Cleveland, Ohio (he also paid for Harvard’s residential colleges). Yale’s iconic Harkness Tower was also donated by the Harkness family. The residential colleges were palatial buildings in the Collegiate Gothic or Georgian architectural styles. They are central to the campus, and account for much of the beauty for which the university is noted.

Harkness Tower and Branford College Courtyard  (via Wikipedia)

The original ten colleges, built in the 1920's-30's, were named after early Yale figures (Berkeley, Davenport, Jonathan Edwards, Pierson, Timothy Dwight, Silliman and Trumbull); the preceding locations of Yale College (Branford and Saybrook, Connecticut); and finally Calhoun, named to honor a distinguished Yale graduate, although he had little to do with the college after he left it.

Davenport College  (via Wikipedia)

In the 1960’s, two more colleges were added, Morse and Stiles, also named after early Yale figures. This year, 2017, two additional colleges are scheduled to open, one named after Pauli Murray, who in 1965 became the first African-American to graduate with an S.J.D. from Yale Law School; and the other after Benjamin Franklin, who received an early honorary degree from Yale.

I have a personal interest in the saga of Calhoun College because when I was an undergraduate I was assigned there, and lived in the building itself for three years. At the time, I found the name honoring Calhoun to be somewhat embarrassing, yet also was wary of zero-tolerance attitudes that evaluated Calhoun only upon this one issue, given the time in which he lived. Still, the seeds were planted, and it was inevitable that the name would one day have to go.  

Branford College  (via Wikipedia)

However, Yale has caught itself in an ironic trap when naming new buildings. Today’s attitude is to revile the “dead white men” who ran things historically, and to honor and elevate women and members of minorities, who admittedly were not given much of a chance in the early days. The problem is that Yale has an additional principle: colleges cannot be named after living people.

Since Yale is over 300 years old, it stands to reason that the people who had the greatest influence in molding the university were those same dead white men. For example, early 19th Century chemistry professor Benjamin Silliman not only brought much honor to the College, he also had a significant influence on chemistry and science in general. Today, with Nobel laureates at universities a dime a dozen, no one individual can stand out that much. 

Timothy Dwight College (via Wikipedia)

Also, Yale was an all-male college until the 1970’s, although the graduate programs admitted female students starting in the 1800’s. Minorities were never prohibited, but they also were relatively scarce until about the 1970’s. What this means is that most female and minority graduates, however distinguished and supporting of the university, are still alive, and thus ineligible for naming purposes.

While their names perhaps don’t spring to mind when considering the university’s history, Yale did find two distinguished individuals when naming colleges after Murray and Hopper. Reading their biographies, I am amazed at their accomplishments, enough for anyone even without having to fight the glass ceiling. I had not known that that Hopper was one of the developers of the COBOL computer language, which I used in programming classes that I have taken.

Jonathan Edwards College (via Wikipedia)

However, in naming these buildings after Franklin, Murray and Hopper, I feel that Yale is ignoring better candidates that had a greater influence in molding the university. Here are some of my top choices:

Jeremiah Dummer:

Jeremiah Dummer the Younger, 1681-1739 (via Wikipedia)

American silver works by Jeremiah Dummer (the Elder), ca. 1680-1700. Clockwise from top left, Master Salt in Boston; Porringer at Yale; Tankard at Christie's; and Caudle Cup at Yale.

Without Jeremiah Dummer (the Younger), there would be no Yale University today; unfortunately with his choice of surname he disqualified himself forever. During Yale’s earliest planning stages, around 1700, when certain powers felt that Harvard was becoming too liberal and wanted to establish a more conservative school in Connecticut, no one worked harder than Dummer to make it a reality. His brother was William Dummer, governor of Massachusetts and founder of the distinguished preparatory school the Dummer Academy, founded in 1763, which finally relented in 2006 and was renamed The Governor’s Academy. Their father was the master Colonial silversmith, also named Jeremiah Dummer, whose works grace many museums.

Timothy Dwight, revisited:

Timothy Dwight IV, 1752-1817  (via Wikipedia)

Timothy Dwight V, 1828-1916  (via Wikipedia)

Yale’s joke in naming the existing colleges is Timothy Dwight College, because there were two early Yale presidents of that name—Timothy Dwight IV, president 1795–1817, was the grandfather of Timothy Dwight V, president 1886-1898, and neither one is specified as the namesake.  Faced with another grueling naming decision, Yale might want to separate the two Dwights and have a college named for each.

Joseph Sheffield:

Joseph Sheffield, 1792-1882  (via Wikipedia)

My real candidate for college naming at Yale is Joseph Earl Sheffield, an early Yale benefactor who once was largely honored but now is shamefully neglected. In the 1860’s Yale’s then-separate scientific school was named after Sheffield when he donated land and money. Further donations came later, even Sheffield’s magnificent house which was adjacent to the school. Sheffield Scientific School also comprised South Sheffield Hall (the original Medical School building), North Sheffield Hall, and Sheffield Chemistry Laboratory.

Sheffield House, Designed by Ithiel Town, Revised by Henry Austin. (Collection of the author.)

Sheffield Scientific School merged back into the main body of Yale in 1956, and by now all of the older Sheffield buildings are demolished. The sole remaining monument is Sheffield Hall, part of the Sterling-Sheffield-Strathcona administrative complex, always referred to as SSS, so that I am sure that no Yale student today knows who Joseph Sheffield was. A man who was so generous to Yale, and such a major part of its history and traditions, should not go unhonored, and so I think that when the next major Naming opportunity comes up, Joseph Sheffield’s name should head the top of the list.

A university’s job is to create and honor history and tradition. That is the reason it names its buildings after people important to its story, and why it should not “de-honor” those who were important to its past but now have been forgotten, like Joseph Sheffield.

What do you think a university’s main criterion should be when naming a major division such as a residential college: honoring those most instrumental in founding the school and its principles, those who best fit the current multi-cultural viewpoint and makeup of the university, or something else entirely?


  1. To be honest with you I fail to see why any of this angst over building names even makes the news. I read these stories and marvel how easy life must be for everyone that their time and energy are spent on what I consider akin to navel gazing. Has Yale lowered its academic standards so much that there is substantive free time for students to get riled up over the name of a building? With the significant financial investment required to attend college these days don’t any of the students have to work? Don’t they have extracurricular activities or sports? When I attended college in the 70’s we actually had to study and read (a lot) to maintain a course load of 5-6 classes per semester. But then we didn’t get participation trophies for just being our wonderful selves.

    It’s difficult to live up to the perfection social warriors demand these days. And if we are to apply the same standard across the board to everything not much is going to remain, including the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. People are flawed, some more than others and slavery is an ugly stain on our country but we can’t change what happened. I’m not trying to be flip but at some point you have to look at the horizon, at the opportunities in front of you and move ahead instead of getting mired in the past. Do we really want to live in a society where everything is parceled off in the exact percentage some group somewhere deems acceptable? Who gets to decide these rigid formulas of how many buildings are named after women/men/minorities/disabled etc. There have been many protest days lately where the theme is for a particular group to bug out for the day so that the rest of society will understand what a day without their presence is like. Here’s a novel thought, how about a day without Caucasian men and as a bonus activity no one gets to use a single invention attributed to them. Not one. That could be interesting. This woman would really like to see everyone stick to their righteous principles on that day.

    1. Anonymous, you bring up some good points. People should be forward looking, instead of trying to rewrite the past to fit to exact standards. Even then, we come to the unsolvable problem of how to define what is fair, even today. Still, the Calhoun name problem has been festering for many decades, and the name was probably the least solid and fitting of the college names to begin with. However, one can't point out that Calhoun only graduated from Yale, then use names of other graduates not otherwise closely associated with the university. It would be better to use new names to confer newly-minted honors, such as new buildings and programs. --Jim

  2. Sir, I don't know "what's in a name," including this name:

    "Elihu Yale (5 April 1649 – 8 July 1721) was an American-born British merchant, philanthropist and slave trader, President of the East India Company settlement in Fort St. George, at Madras, and a benefactor of the Collegiate School in the Colony of Connecticut, which in 1718 was renamed Yale College in his honor."

    Elihu Yale: slave trader. C'mon people.

    Speaking of Joseph Earl Sheffield, my dad graduated in Yale's Sheffield Scientific School clsss of 1932. So for no other reason than nostalgia, I wholeheartedly join you in selecting this gentleman for recognition. Look forward to more from you on these subjects, many thanks sir.

    1. Hello Hunting House, You are right that few names from the past could withstand current scrutiny. Even modern people have been known to err. What we need is a new framework with which to evaluate people as a whole, and to determine what really was beyond the pale for their historical period.

      How interesting that your father attended SSS(Sheffield Scientific School). I understand that there was a real rivalry between the SSS students and the regular Colleges students. On the whole, I am glad that the two were reintegrated, as this makes it easier for students to pursue and combines different lines of study. --Jim

  3. 人事難免毀譽褒貶。If a building has the name of a great person who has made scholarly value, young generations will be inspired and study hard there.
    Thanks for leaving a comment on my post.

    1. Hello Roughterrain Crane, How well you have summarized the obligations in naming academic buildings. I suppose that Calhoun's name was meant to inspire service to country, while Hopper's was intended to prove that women could make an important contribution to the academic world. The problem is that there was no drive to memorialize Hopper (for example by naming a computer fellowship or science building after her) until necessitated by removing Calhoun's recognition. --Jim

  4. Hello Jim,

    This is such a beautiful campus and an opportunity to study there would be a thrill for most students. I'm not sure how I feel about a building being renamed to fit in with today's standards. Can we truly change history, however ugly it might have been?

    1. Hello CD, The Yale campus was certainly inspiring and conducive to study. I had dozens of favorite spots on and around the campus, and also nearby in the city of New Haven. Having lived in Calhoun, it became part of my past and identity, so for that reason I would be very slow to take drastic steps such as this. --Jim

    2. Hello Jim,

      I've always thought that the opportunity to study at these beautiful campuses, rich in such glorious architecture, would be so inspiring. You are indeed fortunate to have such good memories of Calhoun.

      I've never understood the modern American phenomenon of renaming airports, by the way. When a traveler hears San Francisco International Airport, they instantly know where they are destined. Harvey Milk Airport, on the other hand, just doesn't have that allure to it and is not instantly identifiable as to which city one is about to visit.

    3. Hello again, CD, In general I am leery of renaming buildings, airports, etc. If you want to honor someone new, then build a new monument. Otherwise, confusion will result, in addition to the bad vibes in "de-honoring" the old name. One problem that seems to come up is when someone endows a building, then years later the building is restored and suddenly is sporting the name of the restoration-donor instead of the original benefactor. --Jim

  5. Hello Jim - thanks for the historical naming of Yale colleges - very interesting.In England there is a similar debate, inspired by political correctness, challenging the attachment of historical names to institutions and the presence of memorials in public places because those persons reputations do not stand up to scrutiny by today's standards. An example is the staue of Cecil Rhodes in an Oxford college. Ironically, the student leading the protest is enabled to attend the university through a Rhodes Scholarship. Another current campaign is for the removal of a window in Bristol Cathedral commemorating a benefactor who profited from the slave trade. If truth be known much of the wealth that provided for Bristol's foundation as a major city was derived from the slave trade. Similarly, Bristol University was a major beneficiary of the Wills family, whose fortune was made from tobacco; should the Wills name be now removed because of the connection between cancer and tobacco?
    These people were commemorated on the basis of the culture existing at the time. If we rename historic artifacts reflecting today's culture we are, in fact, debasing history itself. Should we rename Darwin College, because the creationists object; or Churchill College because pacifists believe he was a war monger!
    Such attempts should be nipped in the bud. Re-appraisal of historic figures by modern criteria and the renaming of ancient institutions with modern names is ridiculous. In many cases campaigns of this sort are lead by hot-heads intent on establishing a name for themselves.

    1. Hello Rosemary, The habit of naming buildings after people is a more recent one, and how complicated the issues have grown! I have heard about the Rhodes issue, and we do have to reconcile his generosity and vision with his repugnant personal philosophy. Modifying the scholarship program to make it more up-to-date and inclusive makes sense to me, erasing Cecil Rhodes himself from history and view does not. I didn;t know about the Wills/tobacco connection, but the U.S. has a similar issue in Duke University being named after the tobacco money Duke family.

      There was a similar issue with windows at Calhoun. First, all portraits of him in the College were taken down--what I considered a juvenile decision. There were still some stained glass windows of him in the dining hall. One was modified to remove a slavery scene--perhaps I am ok with that; I'd have to see the original window. However, another historic window was smashed by a dining hall worker, and it disturbs me to see people taking the issue into their own hands--Calhoun or not, that is simply vandalism. It is too bad that the renaming of Calhoun had to come at the same time as the founding and naming of two new colleges, thus rushing and conflating the problems. --Jim

  6. I slaved away for years on late 17th century silver art, both in France and in the Huguenot Diaspora (mainly Britain, Germany and Netherlands). The silver works by Jeremiah Dummer the Elder that you showed were indeed c1680-1700. Not only would I sell my first born to afford the blissful tankard at Christie's, I would also name the College after Jeremy Dummer I and his two sons Jeremy II and William. With family talent like that, we can forgive the strange surname and honour them all.

    1. Hello Hels, Sometimes distinction does indeed run in families. Yale owns a number of Dummer pieces in its art gallery and through the distinguished Garvan Collection. As far as I am aware, collections of silver and family portraits are Yale's only acknowledgment to their indebtedness.

      The Dummer Academy survived the name for almost 250 years, and was supported by the students and alumni, but according to them, reaching out to students over a larger area where the name wasn't understood forced the change. --Jim

  7. Fascinating, and much to think about. I'm always happy to see your posts. Was Grace Hopper a graduate student there? I think that honoring that founding and principles of the school is important, but also thought should be given to how the school has evolved. Sort of like adding amendments to the Constitution.

    1. Hello Jennifer, Your approach is the most reasonable one, and works for instances like the new Pauli Murray college. However, the Hopper case is complicated because it does not simply honor Hopper, but also works to remove the name of Calhoun College, which has been part of Yale for over 80 years.

      Grace Hopper got her master's degree from Yale in 1930; in those days there were no female undergraduates. --Jim

  8. Yale does seem to attract a lot of publicity in matters of civil issues in the past years. But I suppose that is the sign of the times. I would love to visit this campus some time - it seems the campuses of Yale, Harvard, and other new england campuses do contain so much of american history.

    1. Hello CSW, I guess the spotlight is on the major colleges, so they seem to generate more news than is really their share. Yale is one of the more liberal universities, so when something happens even a bit out of line, it attracts a lot of attention.

      Many American colleges have indeed put a lot of effort into their campuses and are worth a visit. My favorite architectural part of Yale was all the beautiful old New Haven mansions it acquired over the years and turned into University departments. The Sheffield house above is of course gone, but it gives an idea of New Haven's architectural standards. --Jim

  9. Dearest Jim,
    Indeed, what's in a name?!
    Nowadays with exaggerated PC, liberals try to rewrite history but we never can do away with the facts of decades ago. And why should we?! Let's hope that once it will come to a halt and that some strong leaders will again select the names of those that need to be honored and remembered!
    Sending you hugs and wishing you a happy Sunday,

    1. Hello Mariette, The problem with zero-tolerance is that in the end no one will be eligible. It will possibly turn out that Pauli Murray cheated on her taxes, and that Grace Hopper was a litter-bug, and then what? On the other hand, I am disappointed when I find a personal flaw in some creative genius, such as they were bigoted or abusive, and can never feel the same about their creative works afterward. So I guess we have to choose our individual limits in this area. --Jim

    2. Jim, we might expect too much from a genius...

    3. Hello again, That's the best summary of this whole discussion. We should honor people for what they accomplish, not dissect their lives to find something we don't like. It's true that some people go too far, and perhaps Calhoun approaches this limit. --Jim


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