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Some Additional Thoughts on the College Formerly Known As Calhoun

Today, I have a column in the Wall Street Journal about Yale’s decision to rename Calhoun College. As I mentioned there, anyone paying attention to what’s been happening on college campuses, and especially to what’s been happening at Yale, will not be surprised at the decision.

Back in August 2016, Yale’s president Peter Salovey announced that, in response to various agitations from students and faculty, he was convening the Soviet- or Orwellian-sounding “Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming.” As I noted at the time, there has been something of a craze for renaming things on college campuses recently, as students have laid bare the RacistSexistHomophobicIslamophobicPatriarchalCisgendered character of so many of those benighted figures who had routinely been honored by complacent administrators of the past.

Thank goodness that’s changing now, and it was only to be expected that so heinous a creature as John C. Calhoun, slave owner and, horribile dictu, apologist for slavery, should finally get his comeuppance.  Imagine naming a residential college, and a residential college at Yale, that beacon of enlightenment, after such a repellant figure!

Well, as I report in the WSJ, that error is at last on its way to being rectified. The college once named for a man who had graduated as valedictorian from Yale College and then went on to be a member of the House of Representatives, a U.S. senator, secretary of War, secretary of State, and vice president is finally on his way out. Thank goodness. In his place is a woman (but of course) but unfortunately only a white woman, viz Grace Hopper, who was a pioneer in early computer programming (she invented the precursor to the COBOL language, for example) and long-term Navy officer.

Hopper had no connection with Yale College, but she did take advance degrees from Yale University. It is perhaps worth noting as a sidebar that Yale seems to be downgrading the status of Yale College, once the beating heart of the University, in the firmament of the university as a whole.

Two new colleges are in the works. One is named for Ben Franklin, who had no connection at all with Yale, unless you count the name of an important Yale benefactor’s investment fund. The other is named for Pauli Murray (right: I also said “Who?”), a black civil- and women’s-rights activist and Episcopal priest. Ms. Murray had no connection with Yale College, either, but university officials in charge of picking names for the new colleges must have been delighted to discover that, in addition to taking an academic law degree (as distinct from a JD) from the Yale Law School, she described herself as having an “inverted sex instinct.”

Another category checked off, and this one a triple-whammy: race, gender, and sexual orientation. Congratulations, team!

In my WSJ column, I have something to say about the four broad “principles on renaming” that Peter Salovey’s committee formulated to guide the search for renaming opportunities at Yale. The report of the three-member group of advisors charged with applying the four principles to the case of Calhoun is a comically convoluted affair, a sort of parody of rigorous-sounding academic analysis.

My sources at Yale have confirmed my suspicion that the fundamental, albeit unstated, task of the Committee on Renaming was to formulate principles that would justify renaming Calhoun College -- but not apply to the names of other colleges at Yale or, heaven forfend, to Yale itself.

Yale, of course, is named for Elihu Yale, a Boston-born British merchant who was deeply involved in the slave trade in Madras, India.

Since we are on the subject of Committees for banning/renaming things, it is worth noting that at the same time that he convened the Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming (I just love typing that) President Salovey also brought into being a Committee on Public Art, whose purpose was to scrutinize, and then sanitize where necessary, any works deemed to be "offensive" by the more sensitive and self-regarding cohorts at Yale. Stained glass windows depicting slaves, for example, might be removed and sent away for "further study." It was unclear whether the “further study” would be undertaken under the rubric of Entartete Kunst as were some earlier efforts to segregate offensive objects.

The university seems to be backpedalling on that effort somewhat, but only somewhat. In the advisory group's report, for example, we read that in changing the name of Calhoun, “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.

Got that? At a telephone press briefing with Yale officials on Saturday, there were several questions about what was to become of the several images of Calhoun, to say nothing of the name itself, which is chiseled in stone and mortar about the college. The were conflicting reports about this. Yale’s legal counsel admitted that the “remove for study” option was open while the PR officials, having got outside the word “contextualize,” deployed it early and often to describe what would happen to images of Calhoun and physical representations of his name.

No, I don’t really know what it means to “contextualize” objects of which you disapprove.

I suspect it will be something along the lines of the entartete Kunst option. They won't be called "decadent," of course -- Yale has no problem with things that are only decadent -- but they will be framed in such a way to call attention to their putatively racist, or sexist, or patriarchal, or Islamophobic character.

I don’t find the Committee’s principles, or the Advisory Group’s application of those principles, particularly convincing. If Calhoun must go, why not most of the other 17th and 18th century figures who give their names to Yale’s colleges?

Consider, to take just one example, Samuel F. B. Morse (1791-1872), who also gives his name to a residential college. You might remember him as the inventor of the telegraph. That’s what we used to learn about him. But the really important thing about Morse -- really, the only thing that matters -- is that he was a northern supporter of slavery. Yes that’s right: the man supported slavery. And not only that, just like John Calhoun he argued that slavery was a “positive good” that should be extended throughout the country. “Are there not,” he asked in one tract, in the relation of master to slave, “some of the most beautiful examples of domestic happiness and contentment that this fallen world knows? Protection and judicious guidance and careful provision on the one part; cheerful obedience, affection and confidence on the other.”

Fortunately, Yale recently dropped the title “Master” for the heads of its residential colleges. Otherwise, how could the faculty member occupying that post live with himself? In a way, Morse is a more egregious example than Calhoun, for where Calhoun College was named way back in the early 1930s -- that “low dishonest decade” -- Morse College was named on the threshold of our final enlightenment, the 1960s. By that time, surely, people should have known better.

But while Morse College might be a next step (and there are several other colleges that are equally suspect), the ultimate aim of this campaign for justice must be the name of Yale itself. Surely, there are matters of principle here. Is it not condoning racism to allow an entire university to be named after a man who trafficked in slaves? And think of the offense it must give People of Color at Yale, who cannot even wear a t-shirt emblazoned with their university’s name without being reminded of slavery, racism, white supremacism, the whole works.

Much was made in the documents circulated by Yale of John Calhoun’s advocacy of “nullification,” the idea that states had the right to “nullify”a federal law with which they disagreed. This, it was pointed out, was a clear step on the road to secession. What was not pointed out, however, was that the impulse to secede started in New England, not the South. As the economic historian Thomas J. DiLorenzo points out in an essay on the secessionist movement in New England prior to the Civil War, in the early 1800s many New England Federalists believed that the South, especially Virginia, was gaining too much power. “Their complaints are virtually identical to John C. Calhoun's concerns, decades later, about the unjust regional impacts of excessive federal power.”

There was also an ethnic component to their complaints. “The Federalists,” DiLorenzo notes, “believed strongly that homogeneity of race, and ‘ethnic purity,’ were essential ingredients of a successful republic.” Hence they opposed the Louisiana Purchase because, among other reasons, it would incorporate “hordes of foreigners” into the United States. President Madison’s mind was said to be “full of the New England sedition” and, as further evidence of the similarity of views between the New England Federalists and John C. Calhoun, there was even “a proposition ... discussed in New England to form an alliance with South Carolina to resist Virginia.”

You might think that this complicates matters, but it is critical to understand that the politically correct do not allow figures like John C. Calhoun complications, only caricature.

There is one other tort that was mentioned both in the letter of the advisory group and by President Salovery himself when he briefly joined the telephonic press briefing Saturday. Although the Declaration of Independence features the proposition (what the philosopher Harvey Mansfield once called “the self-evident half-truth”) that “all men are created equal,” Calhoun dismissed that claim as the “most dangerous of political errors.” You do not have to agree with Calhoun to see how embracing that sacred dictum would be upsetting to an elite educational institution like Yale.

I hope that the hordes of applicants who are denied admission this Spring will take their grievance to President Salovey for redress.

Is it utopian to hope that Yale will have the courage to stand on principle and change its name?  Perhaps. But Rome wasn't built in a day. Today, Calhoun. Tomorrow, perhaps, Morse. Eventually -- who knows? -- Yale itself.

But what, if that splendid day dawns, should the university formerly known as Yale call itself? Some cynics have suggested something colorless like The University of Southeastern Connecticut would be appropriate. But that's just mean.

Another suggestion has been floating around the internet which I think is much better. The advisory letter noted that, unlike Calhoun, Elihu Yale had “made a gift that supported the founding of our university.” Indeed he did. It was some books and goods worth about £800.

But the person who prevailed upon Yale, and several others as well, to contribute was a Harvard man, one Jeremiah Dummer. It is really he, not the racist and slave-trading Yale, who deserves the honor of having his name associated with a great university. So may we one day look forward to Dummer University? ’Twould be a consummation devoutly to be wished.