clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Yale is sticking with Calhoun College — named after a notorious slavery defender

Portrait of Calhoun
Calhoun is known for defending slavery and Southern secession.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Yale University has spent much of this school year in a debate about racism, free speech, and sensitivity, encompassing everything from offensive Halloween costumes to the names on Yale's buildings.

Those debates have finally led to a decision: Yale will keep John C. Calhoun's name on one of its 12 residential colleges.

The university said the goal isn't to honor Calhoun, one of the preeminent defenders of slavery before the Civil War, but to put him in context: Yale will begin a study of Calhoun's legacy and will display a piece of art at the college to "respond to the realities and consequences of Calhoun's life and time."

Yale argues that erasing Calhoun's name from the college would mean turning a blind eye to the legacy of slavery.

But the fact is that buildings are generally named after people who deserve to be honored. Yale clearly understands that: The university also just announced two new residential colleges would be named after Benjamin Franklin and Anne Pauli Murray, a legal scholar and a civil rights activist. The choices were supported by extensive praise from Yale leaders for Franklin and Murray as "committed life-long learners who believed in the power of education to transform individuals and societies."

In the same press release where the university argued that naming a residential college after Calhoun doesn't mean embracing his legacy, they made it clear that getting a residential college named after you is a pretty big deal.

That shows the dilemma Yale is going to face. The university has committed itself to arguing that something widely perceived as an honor can really be an occasion to discuss how the person being honored, and his or her time, were flawed. That's a tough tightrope to walk, particularly because, while some historical figures have genuinely complicated legacies, Calhoun isn't one of them.

Why Princeton is keeping Wilson — and why Yale shouldn't keep Calhoun

Woodrow Wilson standing on balcony
Wilson during the 1916 presidential race.
Photo12/UIG/Getty Images

A few weeks ago, Princeton decided to keep Woodrow Wilson's name on its school of public and international affairs, but to pay more attention to the darker side of Wilson's presidency.

The two cases have been lumped together for obvious reasons: two Ivy League schools, two debates about how to honor a historical figure. But they're not really the same.

The central debate about Wilson is whether to honor someone who resegregated the federal government and jailed dissidents, but who also introduced the income tax, created the Fed, and generally laid the foundations of the modern liberal state. Wilson — who was a past president of Princeton University — was inarguably, thoroughly racist, even by the standards of his time, but it's at least plausible to argue that he had other accomplishments that are worthy of recognition.

Calhoun presents none of these ambiguities. His historical legacy is the promotion of slavery and Southern secession. He laid the legal groundwork for the South to secede. His only association with Yale was that he went to college there, as did many, many other luminaries in American history.

And while the reevaluation of Wilson's legacy is relatively recent, it's hard to make excuses for Yale naming anything after Calhoun in the first place: The residential college was named in 1932, 67 years after the end of the Civil War, when the consequences of his rhetoric were already clear — including in Connecticut, where New Haven alone has eight memorials to the Union dead in the Civil War.

It's not just Calhoun's actions in the first half of the 19th century that Yale should be scrutinizing. The discussion will have to include their own choices — ones that, historically speaking, weren't even very long ago.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.