Though many are celebrating the renaming of John Caldwell Calhoun College to Grace Murray Hopper College today, I find myself with profoundly different feelings about the decision than those of the majority of my peers. In the writing of this piece, I do not intend to disrespect the opinions of my fellow students, but merely to convey my thoughts on the matter as dictated by the forces of my conscience. I would like to touch on two different aspects of my dissatisfaction, beginning with why I believe the renaming was a mistake on an institutional level.
The Yale Corporation’s decision to capitulate to the demands of activists is reflective of institutional degeneration—it sets a bad precedent. When authorities fail to act as such, they blur the distinction between administrator and student, master and pupil, and upset the hierarchy that is conducive to the orderly function of an institution. This is not to say that the students will now make all decisions for Yale Corporation in the future. Rather, the Corporation’s concession to demands within its right to refuse, in response to shifting public opinion, portends weakness in the face of future unrest. I worry that as those who protested the name Calhoun move to other issues of discontent, the Corporation will similarly give in. This will undermine the authority of the administration and confers legitimacy upon the protestors.
Another issue with the name change is the failure to recognize the positive contributions of John C. Calhoun. That said, we certainly should not overlook his abhorrent views on slavery. But focusing only on his racist tendencies to the exclusion of his redeeming features stems from an ignorance of the full body of his thinking. Most criticisms I have heard are reiterated so often—and are so limited in scope—they have been reduced to platitudes; hardly anyone I have talked to has ever mentioned reading a portion of his Disquisition on Government (the magnum opus of his political theory). Within the folds of the book, Calhoun discusses the importance of government as a cultivator of moral principles in the populace. He also describes institutions that can protect the interests of minorities while containing the ability of the government to do wrong. These ideas can easily be divorced from the unsavory aspects of his beliefs, and, when properly understood, communicate his deep-seated faith in the moral potential of our country—the power of proper governance by the people to yield true progress.
I hope this will be the last of the renaming scandals to plague Yale. In the wake of the renaming, I am reminded of the words of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas on the issue of Calhoun’s namesake: “I do not care for symbolism.”