From the Editor

When everything’s in a name

The choice of residential college names will say a lot about how Yale sees itself today.

How important are the names of Yale’s two new residential colleges?

When the colleges open, in fall 2017, they’ll be just two Yale buildings among 440. Regardless, the choice of their names will be a crystallizing moment for Yale. Most buildings on any campus are named for major donors. But the existing 12 colleges were deliberately named for people and places in Yale history. They reflect the university’s image of itself in the 1930s, when the first ten were built, and the 1950s, when Stiles and Morse were named. The two new colleges pose the question: what is the university’s image of itself today?

The Corporation, Yale’s board of trustees, expects to answer that question in 2015. They have had plenty of input. In 2008, the Yale Alumni Magazine and Yale’s Women Faculty Forum both collected lists of possible names. In October 2014, with construction moving forward, Yale president Peter Salovey ’86PhD invited all alumni to suggest names. At this writing, some 2,600 responses have come in. In November, petitions, Facebook pages, and Twitter campaigns flowered on the Internet—all asking, in one way or another, that the trustees break the pattern of naming residential colleges after white men.

What other precedents do the existing names offer? The clearest: no names of living people. Other than that, the trustees of the past didn’t follow a pattern. They included Branford and Saybrook, two towns important in early Yale lore. They were interested in history beyond Yale; Davenport and Trumbull, neither an alumnus, were the cofounder of the New Haven colony and first governor of the state of Connecticut. One donor was included, George Berkeley, a famous Anglo-Irish philosopher. Three colleges are named for four Yale presidents—Pierson, Stiles, and two Timothy Dwights (grandfather and grandson)—and one, Silliman, for a professor. Three colleges are named for eminent alumni who didn’t work at Yale: Jonathan Edwards, Calhoun, and Morse. The trustees seem also to have been interested in firsts: witness Trumbull, and also Pierson, not a man of great achievement, but a local pastor who became the school’s first rector.

Since tradition doesn’t require prominence, study at Yale, or even personhood, the current trustees have a lot of latitude. But the names raised most often on campus and by alumni are those of eminent and/or groundbreaking alumni. They include Edward Bouchet, Class of 1874, ’76PhD, the first African American to earn a US doctorate; Henry Roe Cloud, Class of 1910, the first Native American to attend Yale; Grace Hopper, ’34PhD, a computer pioneer; Noah Webster, Class of 1778, who wrote the first dictionary of American English; and Yung Wing, Class of 1854, the first Chinese national to attend a US college.

Even this brief list shows that the trustees have too much to choose from. They may agree with the alumni petition that urged that the names reflect Yale’s “diverse perspectives and rich heritage”—but two names can’t accomplish that. Many people are going to feel left out, no matter what names are announced.

So it’s important to remember that Yale’s real diversity achievement since the first 12 colleges were named is its radical demographic shift after the 1960s. The trustees’ choices will be a major public statement. But they won’t define Yale. That’s already been done, and is constantly being refined, and hopefully improved upon, every time a new student is admitted or a teacher hired. The “diverse perspectives and rich heritage” exist in the students, faculty, and alumni who are Yale.

1 comment

  • Michael Bush
    Michael Bush, 9:14pm January 22 2015 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Jonathan Edwards did work at Yale, though. He was Senior Tutor for two years beginning in 1724. FWIW.

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