Letters to the Editor

Calhoun, Franklin, Murray, “master,” and more

Our readers respond.

We welcome readers’ letters, which should be mailed to Letters Editor, Yale Alumni Magazine, PO Box 1905, New Haven, CT 06509-1905; e-mailed to yam@yale.edu; or faxed to (203) 432-0651. Due to the volume of correspondence, we are unable to respond to or publish all mail received. Letters accepted for publication are subject to editing.

I was deeply disappointed to hear that Yale will not change the name of Calhoun College, and outright shocked that two-thirds of your reader panel approve of the name (“What’s In a Name,” May/June). There should be no ambiguity: Yale must not continue to honor white supremacists. I was ashamed to belong to Calhoun College from the moment I was assigned to it 15 years ago. Even having met my beloved wife there, I still cannot hear the name Calhoun without grimacing, and I cannot understand how a university whose anthem invokes “God” and “Country” can cast a proto-secessionist racial supremacist’s memory in anything but dishonor.

To be clear, I share President Salovey’s goal of acknowledging Yale’s history in full; as such, I am glad that Yale has planned historical and artistic exhibitions of Calhoun’s life and beliefs. This essential scholarly effort, however, is separate from the question of the college’s name. And in any honest assessment of history, it is clear that the man who laid the foundation for treason in defense of slavery is not worthy of such an honor. The name Calhoun is a disgrace; it should be on public display in a museum, not atop a college.

Robert Lindquist ’05
San Francisco, CA


Many voices more eloquent than mine have spoken on this subject, but I’d like to make a proposal that would turn this controversy into a perennial teaching moment. I propose that the name of the college change to honor another more worthy, but the changing of the name ought to be celebrated annually.

A week of reflection on the controversy, with a discussion of Calhoun’s place in history, combined with a series of events designed to raise awareness and build bridges could turn this controversy into a win for those who wish to preserve the past and celebrate a future of greater understanding and fairness.

Malcolm Marsden ’79
West Orange, NY


I am dismayed by those who wish to retain the name of Calhoun College in order to remember our history and not to “rail against history,” “mess with history,” or “deny our history,” to quote a recent letter to the editor. Naming the college for Calhoun is not merely remembering or acknowledging history. It is both honoring a man and simultaneously denying the history of his misdeeds and cruelty perpetuated on a race of people, not only by Calhoun but also by an entire society for the economic and psychological benefit of the slave owners.

It is a blot on the honor of our university and a symbol of gross insensitivity to human suffering. I believe the college should be renamed as soon as possible. In order to remember our history the university could place a plaque in several prominent areas of what is now Calhoun College, explaining who Calhoun was and why the name of the college was changed.

Alan G. Corman ’61
North Chelmsford, MA 


I commend Yale’s decision to retain Calhoun’s name. President Salovey said that doing so would encourage the campus community to confront the history of slavery, and to teach that history and its legacy. I suggest not just encouragement, but the requirement that every Yale undergraduate take a course about the life and times of every person after whom a college in Yale is named, plus Elihu Yale himself. Over half of them owned slaves. Yale students should study, not just respond to “the realities and consequences of Calhoun’s life and time” (in President Salovey’s words) and others whose legacies remain at Yale.

For example, students would learn that Bishop Berkeley (of that college) in 1732 gave his 96-acre Rhode Island plantation to Yale. The rents from it funded Yale’s first scholarship, given to the best students in Latin and Greek. They would learn that Benjamin Silliman, a contemporary of John C. Calhoun, benefited from slavery, was a racist, and advocated moving black people to Africa as a solution to the country’s racial discord. Silliman’s mother was the largest slaveholder in Fairfield County. She paid the Yale tuition of Benjamin and his brother by selling slaves from her farm. Students would learn about Timothy Dwight’s ownership of slaves. Elihu Yale himself should be studied. The book Ebony and Ivy by Steven Wilder (on which this letter is based) should be required reading. It describes the extensive benefit most eastern private universities received from slavery in their founding and survival.

As for Calhoun, students would learn that he was vice president under two separate presidents, secretary of war, secretary of state, and a United States senator. He was not just an aggressive advocate of slavery; he also wrote thoughtful commentaries about how to organize government to protect political minorities. As imperfect for today’s America as those studies were, they still formed the basis of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, using his ideas of a dual executive and concurrent majority.

Such a mandatory course would not only teach students about Yale, but a lot about eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American history. Or even before that, considering that Harvard started it all.

The New York Times reported that Henry Louis Gates Jr. ’73 said he and his black classmates in Calhoun saw themselves as “there to prove Calhoun wrong.” Maybe a little learning will enable all Yale undergraduates to have that exemplary viewpoint.

Harry D. Hammett ’60
Fort Worth, TX


As an alumnus and the son of an alumnus, I might be expected to respect Yale’s traditions, including the honors bestowed on the men for whom the university’s colleges were named. For the most part, I do.

Calhoun College is an exception. I am increasingly embarrassed by Yale’s tardiness in renaming Calhoun College. The honoring of John Calhoun was embarrassing in 1953, when the college’s façade faced me across Elm Street from my Durfee Hall room. Calhoun College’s name has become even more of an embarrassment every one of the 62 years since then. Yale’s honoring of our nation’s foremost advocate for the expansion of slavery will become a more and more shameful embarrassment until the Yale Corporation takes the needed action.

Law School graduate and former member of the Yale Corporation Marian Wright Edelman ’63LLB eloquently presented the case for renaming in a Huffington Post essay, “Ugly Truths It’s Way Past Time for America to Face.” The facts she summarizes are ugly indeed. Yale and slavery were bound to one another by multiple knots. Slavery was integral to the financing of many colleges and universities. That tragic history cannot be undone, but the history that you are making today, by your action or your failure to act, is in your hands.

John C. Calhoun was no mere man of his time. He was our nation’s foremost advocate of chattel slavery and, especially, of expanding the scope of slavery. Today he would be an obscure nineteenth-century politician were it not for his obsession with keeping African Americans enslaved and for expanding the domain of slavery to the new states in the West. Like it or not, the Yale Corporation is making history every twenty-first-century day that it continues to honor America’s foremost champion of slavery.

Exclusion of women from the faculty and from the student body was a longstanding Yale tradition—a much longer tradition than the honoring of John Calhoun. A time came when the Corporation realized that Yale’s gender exclusion tradition was wrong and overdue for a change. They changed it. In making that change, they honored a more important tradition: doing the right thing.

Will the current members of the Yale Corporation do the right thing? Let us hope so.

Edward M. Opton Jr. ’57
Berkeley, CA


Your article about Calhoun raises an important question: what were the university’s trustees thinking when they chose the name? For answer, however, you say only that there is “little record” of the naming process beyond “a note in the Corporation’s records” that college names were approved. You then go on to suggest a contemporary context that might explain the choice, namely that “white America was in a mood of reconciliation about the Civil War.”

This suggestion is clearly off the mark. First, the decision was not made “in 1933,” as you wrote. Calhoun College received its first residents in September 1933, but the process of naming the first eight colleges, whose construction was approved in 1930, would have taken place over the intervening years. It might help to know the exact date on the Corporation’s note.

The detail is significant, because there was a national incident in 1930, long forgotten now, which was emblematic of deep divisions in the nation at that time, both between whites and blacks and within the white community. In March, President Hoover nominated a known racist from North Carolina to the Supreme Court. The national reaction to the nomination and its outcome was prominently covered in every major newspaper in the country, so that Yale’s trustees could not have been unaware of it.

John Johnston Parker was a US circuit judge whose view that “the participation of the Negro in politics is a source of evil and danger” was widely known. His nomination to the Supreme Court was vigorously opposed by the NAACP and also by the American Federation of Labor. (Parker had ruled against organized labor in several important cases.) On May 7 the Senate narrowly defeated Parker’s nomination.

In an article he wrote in July 1930 for the Crisis, an NAACP publication, W. E. B. Du Bois listed the senators who had voted in favor of Judge Parker, with the dates when they would be up for reelection. He advised his readers, “Paste this in your hat and keep it there until November 1934.” Both Connecticut senators were on his list, and they were both Republicans and Yale men: Hiram Bingham ’98 and Frederic Walcott ’91.

Bingham and Walcott eventually lost their reelection bids, in 1932 and 1934, respectively. It would be unreasonable to trace their defeat to DuBois’s article, since Franklin Roosevelt’s Democratic New Deal swept national elections in 1932 and after. It is surely as unreasonable, however, to suggest that the members of the Yale Corporation ignored these events and were in a mood of reconciliation as they considered naming a residential college for John C. Calhoun. We need to learn more about their thinking at the time. 

Malcolm Mitchell ’57
Ithaca, NY


The Corporation voted to name Calhoun College on May 9, 1931.—Eds.


You quote President Salovey as saying that removing the Calhoun name “would obscure the legacy of slavery.” Perhaps he was correct, because in your article you state that Calhoun “had served as vice president under two presidents, US senator, and secretary of defense.”

By all accounts, John C. Calhoun was secretary of war. That title and its office were reorganized in 1947 and, in what surely is on the short list of Orwellian masterpieces, were renamed secretary of defense and department of defense. Now every nation in the world has a defense ministry, so no one is aggressive anymore. It would seem that that obscuring of the past has finally worked, since none of you realized that titles in Calhoun’s time were more honest.

Mark P. Curchack ’69
Philadelphia, PA


We knew that Calhoun’s title was secretary of war, but we used the modern equivalent of the title for clarity, anachronistic as it may have been.—Eds.


In saying that at the time of the naming of the colleges in 1933 Calhoun was “the most consequential politician the university had produced,” your article overlooked William Howard Taft ’78, president of the United States from 1909 to 1913 and chief justice of the Supreme Court afterwards.

Yes, in days gone by we all thought of Taft as a bloated buffoon, but Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit presents a favorable portrait of Taft as a well-meaning progressive, undermined by Teddy Roosevelt zealots, and an honorable and effective chief justice. He was also an enlightened governor general of the Philippines, which should give him standing among those rightly concerned about social justice. In time Yale will have more colleges. Go Taft!

Lee Smith ’59
Washington, DC


The editors thought about Taft, but considered Calhoun more consequential (which is not to say he was greater or more admirable). A panel of ten historians convened by the Atlantic in 2006 came to the same conclusion, ranking Calhoun number 58 on its list of the “100 Most Influential Figures in American History,” but leaving Taft out.—Eds.


On “master”

I belong to a Harvard discussion group, mostly men, mostly lawyers, and mostly retired. On a recent afternoon, after we’d talked heatedly about the troubling issues at Amherst with the legacy of Lord Jeff, at Princeton with Woodrow Wilson, and, of course, with Calhoun and the “masters” at Yale (“What’s In a Name,” May/June), the group was just breaking up when one of the members quipped that if Yale students were objecting so strongly to the tradition of college masters, what did any of us think that Harvard should do about its Board of Overseers?

Fair Harvard? Hm.

Carol Prisant (Mrs. Millard, ’57)
New York, NY


Names of the new colleges

I spent my freshman and sophomore years at Yale as a member of the Class of 1955, but for a number of personal reasons I transferred to the University of Pennsylvania for my last two years and graduated with a Wharton degree. So I am delighted that my first university is naming a new residential college for Benjamin Franklin, the founder of my ultimate alma mater (“What’s in a Name,” May/June).

Paul A. Rubinstein ’55
New York, NY


With regard to the naming of Benjamin Franklin College, why stop at half measures? If $250 million buys you the right to name a residential college after your own investment firm, imagine how much the whole place would net. I’m thinking “Uber University”—it practically trips off the tongue. Maybe Elon Musk would chip in a few billion to have a “Musk U.” Jeff Bezos would certainly be intrigued by “Amazon University.”

Wait, let’s think globally. Imagine how many renminbi we’d have if the Yale Corporation agreed to “Alibaba U.” Added benefit: it would move us up even higher in the alphabet than Amazon.

Mitch Silver ’68
Greenwich, CT


Benjamin Franklin needs no introduction; anyone who has had eighth-grade American history knows all about Benjamin Franklin and all his accomplishments.  But what were his connections to Yale? Almost none.

On the other hand, Noah Webster was the father of our American language—and he was a bona fide Yale College graduate (BA 1778). Webster was born in Hartford, where his father was a farmer. At age 6, Webster began attending a one-room primary school. When he was 14, his church pastor tutored him in Latin and Greek to prepare him for entering Yale College. His father mortgaged the farm to send Webster to Yale. (That sounds familiar in today’s world of high college expenses.)

Webster enrolled at Yale just before his 16th birthday, studying during his senior year with Ezra Stiles, who was then Yale’s president. His four years at Yale overlapped with the American Revolution. Noah Webster served in the Connecticut Militia.

Later, Webster dedicated his speller and dictionary to providing an intellectual foundation for American nationalism. From 1787 to 1789, Webster was an outspoken supporter of the new US Constitution.

For decades, he was one of the most prolific authors in the new nation, publishing textbooks, political essays, a report on infectious diseases, and newspaper articles for his Federalist party. He wrote so much that a modern bibliography of his published works required 655 pages. He moved back to New Haven in 1798; he was elected as a Federalist to the Connecticut House of Representatives in 1800 and again from 1802 to 1807. Webster helped found the Connecticut Society for the Abolition of Slavery in 1791.

In 1806, Webster published his first dictionary. In 1807, he began compiling his expanded and fully comprehensive American Dictionary of the English Language; it took 26 years to complete. Surely this Yale College graduate who founded our American English language deserved to have a college named for him.

Nancy Alderman ’94, ’97MES
North Haven, CT


Yale’s announcement about Benjamin Franklin College insensitively disregarded Franklin’s brief formal education. With a minimal amount of research effort, Yale could have heralded that Benjamin Franklin attended the Boston Latin School, the same school that has sent more students to Ivy League and other fine colleges than any other school. More important, Franklin’s alma mater has sent more students of color to Ivy League and other fine colleges than any other school. Of course that same research would have shown that Franklin’s alma mater for centuries has been guilty of sending more of its graduates to Harvard than any other school; maybe that is why Yale has judiciously decided not to mention the school.

Francis M. Vitagliano
Boston, MA


If Pauli Murray took a male name and “wrote of having a masculine sense of self that led her to seek male hormone therapy in the late 1930s and early 1940s” (“Pauli Murray,” May/June), is it correct to refer to her as a woman, using female pronouns?

Linda Godleski ’78
Professor of Psychiatry
New Haven, CT


We debated this question, but decided to use feminine pronouns because Murray regularly used them in her published writings to refer to herself.—Eds.


A college head resigns

Students have successfully harassed and bullied two faculty members (Nicholas and Erika Christakis) to resign their positions as heads of Silliman College. [See page 18 for an article on the Christakises’ resignation.] Now students are publicly agitating to change the content of literature studied in an English major because their sensibilities are offended! When will these students learn that life could care less about their sensibilities?

These events raise the question of who is in charge: the inmates? The institution?

Roland J. Garofalo ’53
Dewitt, MI


No laughing matter

Francis Oates’s letter in your May/June issue, in which he writes a parodic manifesto calling for greater trans-species sensitivity, is—no joke—offensive. The reason decent human beings think about what might be offensive to other people is that it’s a part of decency to understand that other people might take offense at being mocked. Animals don’t and can’t take offense at the names of sports teams, but people can take offense at mocking letters comparing them to animals.

William Flesch ’78
Waltham, MA


Yale, veterans, and war

Thank you for the article about the very interesting veterans that are currently at Yale (“War and After,” May/June). I attended the School of Nursing on the GI Bill after serving as an Army nurse at Fort Polk, Louisiana, as a first lieutenant. The Army experience taught me so much about the human character and cultural diversity, which paid off so often when I was caring for people. I think many alums don’t know that vets attend Yale. Thanks for giving them visibility and confirmation.

Brenda Penner ’76MSN
Astoria, OR


I find it very disturbing that your article about Yale veterans seems to present a pro-war point of view, both in terms of the introductory material and the featured veterans in the remainder of the article. While I do support our veterans who have served in the US military, I do not subscribe to the unquestioning view that our current military campaigns, particularly those in Iraq and Afghanistan, are either noble or in the interests of the vast majority of people in the United States.

Thus, I would ask you to consider presenting the other side of the story in a form that the editors and board may consider appropriate. The news media has, to some extent, covered what I believe are war crimes committed by our country in our name in Iraq and Afghanistan. The fact that the military covers them up, or even creates alternative stories that are untrue, is very disturbing to me.

While I love our country, that love does not include blind patriotism and rubber-stamping of decisions to wage war throughout the globe. I believe that war should be a last resort in a situation where there is a credible threat to the United States, a threat that affects the majority of Americans. On the other hand, it should not be a means to stimulate the economy or to take the lives of those few Americans who voluntarily enlist in the interest of what Dwight D. Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex.

Linda Marianiello ’80
Santa Fe, NM


The article was written to examine the experiences of veterans. We did not try to take any position, pro or con, on the recent wars.—Eds.


Tales of the sea

In response to Dwight Gertz’s letter (May/June) arguing that the sailing team should have gotten credit for 18 national championships, I’d like to say first that I appreciate the high praise for athletic director Tom Beckett. His support for the sailing team—and especially guiding the Yale Sailing Associates (alumni advisory council) through the hurdles of achieving varsity status—was crucial.

As Dwight points out, whether a team is varsity or a club makes no difference as long as it is competing in a recognized intercollegiate sport flying the Yale colors. My sophomore year, 1940, I was on the Yale team that came in second, losing to Dartmouth’s skipper Bus Mosbacher, later renowned for defending the America’s Cup. Further, sailing is, after rowing, the second oldest intercollegiate sport; what is now the Yale Corinthian Yacht Club was founded in 1870. Yale won the first intercollegiate competition held in 1881 on the Thames River at New London before the Yale-Harvard crew race. In the Kiphuth Trophy Room at Payne Whitney is one of the oldest silver collegiate sports trophies, engraved with the names of the Yale sailing team.

I served as rear commodore of the Yale Corinthian Yacht Club, having been preceded by my grandfather, Henry B. Anderson, as commodore in 1884 and great-uncle Oliver G. Jennings, vice commodore, in 1886.

Sailing for Yale does not end on graduation. The last time we were with Dwight was when crewing for him on the Yale team in an intercollegiate alumni regatta in Newport Beach Harbor, California.

Henry (Harry) H. Anderson ’43
Mystic, CT



In our biographical sketch of Pauli Murray ’65JSD (May/June), we reported that Murray was rejected from the University of North Carolina law school because of her race. It was in fact the university’s graduate school that rejected her.

The comment period has expired.