Roger Kimball, Wall Street Journal, February 12, 2017
Yale University announced Saturday that it would change the name of Calhoun College, one of its original 12 residential colleges that opened in the early 1930s. Henceforth, the college will be named in honor of Grace Hopper, an early computer scientist and naval officer.
Since last August, when Yale’s president, Peter Salovey, announced that he was convening a Committee to Establish Principles for Renaming — yes, really — the handwriting had been on the wall for Calhoun, a distinguished Yale alumnus who served as a congressman, senator, secretary of war, secretary of state and vice president.
You might, like me, think that Calhoun was wrong about that. But if you are Peter Salovey, you have to disparage Calhoun as a “white supremacist” whose legacy — “racism and bigotry,” according to a university statement — was fundamentally “at odds” with the noble aspirations of Yale University (“improving the world today and for future generations . . . through the free exchange of ideas in an ethical, interdependent, and diverse community”).
During a conference-call press briefing Saturday, and throughout the documents related to the Calhoun decision, officials have been careful to stress that the university operates with a “strong presumption against” renaming things. Because they do not seek to “erase history,” the officials insist, renaming things for ideological reasons would be “exceptionally rare.”
When you study the four principles Mr. Salovey’s committee came up with to justify a renaming, you can see why it took so long. The task, it seems clear, was to find a way to wipe away Calhoun College while simultaneously immunizing other institutions at Yale from politicized rebaptism.
Did the principal legacy of the honored person “fundamentally conflict” with the university’s mission? Was that legacy “contested” within the person’s lifetime? Were the reasons that the university honored him at odds with Yale’s mission? Does the named building or program play a substantial role in “forming community at Yale”?
Readers who savor tortuous verbal legerdemain will want to acquaint themselves with the “Letter of the Advisory Group on the Renaming of Calhoun College,” which is available online. It is a masterpiece of the genre.
Mr. Salovey stepped out of a board meeting briefly to join the conference call on Saturday. More in sadness than in anger he disparaged John Calhoun, praised Grace Hopper, and affirmed his commitment to diversity, free inquiry, etc. Then one of the reporters asked why he was renaming Calhoun College for a white woman, especially since February was Black History Month. Oh dear. Thanks so much, must get back to that board meeting now.
In “The Crack-Up,” F. Scott Fitzgerald comments that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” First-rate or not, the evolving politically correct circus at Yale does not offer a lot of support for that proposition.