From the Editor

Naming the new colleges

Now that Yale has made its plans for two new undergraduate residential colleges official (see "Yale College to expand enrollment by 15 percent"), the Yale Alumni Magazine's "Name those colleges!" challenge is officially relevant. Or rather, not "officially." Our project to collect college name ideas from the Yale alumni is a wholly freelance undertaking.

Our executive editor, Mark Alden Branch ’86, was the first to raise the name question publicly, in our January/February 2007 issue. Since then we've received dozens of suggestions, and more keep coming in. (See Name Those Colleges!.) Did you know that vitamins A and B were discovered by one of the first Jews on the Yale faculty? That the first African American woman ordained as an Episcopal priest had a Yale JD and was a founder of the National Organization for Women? That Elihu Yale made his donation partly because he had family in New Haven?

Yale administrators and trustees have given no clues as to their leanings. Personally, I'd love to see a woman's name over one of those front gates. But at this early point the only candidates I'd put a little money on are Noah Webster, Class of 1778; J. Willard Gibbs, Class of 1858, ’63PhD; and Edward Bouchet, Class of 1874, ’76PhD. Webster and Gibbs are straightforward. One is the celebrated dictionarist who shaped American spelling. (For more on Webster, see Last Look.) The other developed the modern system of thermodynamic analysis; some historians consider him the greatest American scientist.

Bouchet is more complicated. Robert Hinton ’93PhD, a professor in the Africana Studies Program at NYU, wrote us a letter last year arguing that naming a college after a woman or black person "who has contributed nothing to the university" would be "insulting to blacks and women." He added, "Yale has to learn to live with its history of racism and sexism. There is no quick fix for a shameful past."

Bouchet might be seen in that light. He was the first African American to enter Yale College, the first to receive a U.S. PhD, and the sixth person of any race to earn a PhD in physics -- stunning achievements in the period just after the Emancipation Proclamation. But what college had a place for a black academic? His career stalled. He ended up teaching in Philadelphia at the Institute for Colored Youth, and after he died was buried in New Haven without a tombstone.

If Bouchet had a Who's Who entry, it would be much shorter than Samuel Morse's or Bishop Berkeley's. But I'd argue being the first African American to earn a U.S. doctorate is, for Yale, a legacy analogous to those of some other residential college honorees. Consider Abraham Pierson, one of the founding trustees and the first rector of Yale (then called the Collegiate School). He served for many years as pastor of Newark, New Jersey, following his father, and then as pastor of the small Connecticut community of Killingworth. On becoming rector, he taught and boarded the new school's few students in his house in Killingworth for the six years until his death.

Neither Pierson nor Bouchet made great discoveries or became renowned. But their achievements were Yale landmarks. Yale rightly honors Pierson as a founding father. As for Bouchet, today Yale includes him in every approved university history of any length. His PhD conferred on Yale, despite that "shameful past," the honor of a historic first.  

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