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?