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Yale University Refuses to Bow to Pressure to Rename Residential College Honoring Controversial Historical Figure

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"We cannot erase American history, but we can confront it, teach it and learn from it."

(Photo: Wiki Commons)

Despite fierce protests and intense pressure to rename a residential college that was named after a slavery supporter, Yale University announced Wednesday that it has decided to retain Calhoun College's title.

John C. Calhoun, a 19th-century politician who supported slavery and called it "a positive good," has long been a controversial figure in Yale's history, according to the New York Times. The former vice president and secretary of state was one of Yale's most prominent alumni, thus earning him the honor of having the residential college named after him following its founding in 1933. Although Yale reaffirmed that it did not support all of Calhoun's controversial beliefs, it announced Wednesday that the college would retain its name in the hopes of encouraging civil discourse among students.

"Ours is a nation that often refuses to face its own history of slavery and racism. Yale is part of that history," Yale President Peter Salovey said, according to Fox News. "We cannot erase American history, but we can confront it, teach it and learn from it."

Although Yale refused to bow to pressure to change Calhoun College's name, it also announced that a new residential college would be named for Anna Pauline Murray, a legal scholar and civil rights activist who graduated from Yale Law School in 1965. This would mark the first time that Yale has named a college after an African-American or a woman, according to the Times.

In another newly announced change, Yale said it would be the dropping the traditional word "master" from the residential colleges' leaders' titles, replacing it with the title "head of college," Fox News reported.

The Black Student Alliance at Yale applauded the "master" title drop and naming of the new college after Murray as steps "towards greater inclusivity," adding that "Murray college and the title decision are still long overdue first steps towards creating a better and more inclusive Yale," according to the group's Facebook page.

But the group still lambasted Yale for its refusal to rename Calhoun College and called the decision a "regression."

"Keeping the name Calhoun does not foster learning opportunities. Instead, it only diminishes our ability to combat the heinous nature of slavery and racism," the Facebook statement read. "We remain committed to the idea that residential colleges should be named after people whose legacies offer values applicable to Yale students today, and John C. Calhoun and his advocacy of slavery as a moral good does not meet that bar."


The group also took issue with Yale's decision to name another new college after Benjamin Franklin, who was once a slaveholder, himself. But Salovey maintained that Franklin was a "personal hero and role model" of Yale alumnus Charles B. Johnson, who donated $250 million to pay for the two new buildings. Johnson's gift was the largest single donation Yale has ever received, according to the Times.

"We’re trying to reconcile our current values and aspirations with these names," Jonathan Holloway, the college’s first black dean of students, said, according to the Times. "We will have failed if we do not do that work going forward."

Follow Kathryn Blackhurst (@kablackhurst) on Twitter

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