From the Editor

What is Yale?

More on naming the new colleges.

Your alumni magazine is still fascinated by the question of what Yale will name its two new residential colleges. As academic infrastructure, colleges are glorified dorms, much less productive of research and teaching than, say, Sterling Law Quadrangle or the Anlyan biomedical center. But as naming opportunities, colleges stand as a highly public answer to the question, what is Yale? Or rather: what does Yale think it is?

Most alumni who've suggested college names recently (including this magazine) think in terms of eminence. What is Yale? Yale is a producer of national figures -- U.S. presidents, great thinkers, Nobelists, Cole Porter!

But the answer given in the 1930s, when the first ten colleges were named, was different. What was Yale? Yale was a Protestant Connecticut institution very proud of its origins. Two colleges, Branford and Saybrook, were named for nearby towns that figured in Yale's early history. Pierson was the first head of the new school. John Davenport co-founded the New Haven Colony. Jonathan Trumbull, 1779LLD, was the first governor of Connecticut.

Benjamin Silliman was a faculty member and influential scientist; two different Timothy Dwights (classes of 1759 and 1849) served as Yale presidents, and one was a leading religious thinker. But of the ten, only three were certifiably famous: British philosopher George Berkeley; theologian Jonathan Edwards, 1720BA; and (to the continuing embarrassment of modern Yale) John C. Calhoun, 1804BA, U.S. vice president and zealous partisan of slavery.

By the 1950s, when Stiles and Morse were built, the answer to the question had shifted. Yale had become a little more self-conscious about its national standing. Ezra Stiles, 1746BA, was another Yale president who looms larger in Yale history than in U.S. history -- but the historian Edmund Morgan called him "the most learned man of his generation in America." And Samuel Morse, 1810BA, inventor of the telegraph, is probably the only college namesake most Americans have actually heard of.

In my last letter I said I'd love to see a woman's name on a college. If Yale today decides to stick with the tradition of commemorating its own history, Nancy Alexander ’79, ’84MBA, has a suggestion: Hanna Holborn Gray, Yale's first and so far only female president. (Gray was acting president, during 1977-78, but Yale later dropped the "acting.") She was the University of Chicago's president for 15 years and now chairs the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. She was Yale's first female provost and one of the first two female members of the Corporation, Yale's board. On the subject of opening new territory, Gray and Davenport could have an interesting chat.

I bring her up because the question "What is Yale?" gets us to Yale's identity politics. On the cover of this issue, we've used the phrase "post-WASP Yale." That's pushing it: Yale is a very white place. But nearly a third of Yale graduate and college students today are people of color. The university chaplain is Catholic. The president is Jewish.

What is Yale? Yale is, among other things, radically different in population and priorities from what it used to be, which is what makes the question so interesting. It's not up to the alumni to answer the question by inscribing names over college gates. That decision lies with the Corporation and president.

But We'll forward them.


Kathrin Day Lassila '81

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