After decades of dispute and controversy, including a recent protest by hundreds of students, faculty and staff, Yale University has finally confirmed the name change of Calhoun College, one of the twelve residential colleges on campus. The residential complex currently known as Calhoun will soon be called Hopper College after Yale graduate and esteemed mathematician Grace Murray Hopper. The change could not come soon enough for many of the students, faculty and staff, who notably filed a report against the building with the Witt Committee (a Yale honor and conduct organization) and launched a petition last year to have the building renamed given that it bore the agnomen of a prominent white-supremacist and avid proponent of slavery, former Vice President and Secretary of War John C. Calhoun.
“Calhoun was undeniably on the wrong side of history,” Chasan Hall ‘18, a resident of Yale’s nearby Trumbull College, told The College Voice. “I mean, he advocated state’s rights, loved slavery, changed the way and the occasions people could talk about slavery, and was just generally bad. I think it’s really cool we got rid of him, and that the building is now named after a woman.”
“There’s a huge sense of relief and celebration,” agreed Rianna Johnson-Levy ‘17.
Previously, Yale’s president displayed reticence about changing the building’s name, citing the need to understand the complexity of history. “At that time, as now, I was committed to confronting, not erasing, our history. I was concerned about inviting a series of name changes that would obscure Yale’s past,” said President Peter Salovey. “These concerns remain paramount, but we have since established an enduring set of principles that address them. The principles establish a strong presumption against renaming buildings, ensure respect for our past, and enable thoughtful review of any future requests for change.”
Grace Hopper was chosen instead of Calhoun, Yale claims, not merely because of her affiliation with the university, but because she worked on and helped develop one of the earliest prototypes of the computer, initially used during World War II by the Navy. “An extraordinary mathematician and a senior naval officer, Hopper achieved eminence in fields historically dominated by men,” said Salovey, continuing: “Today, her principal legacy is all around us—embodied in the life-enhancing technology she knew would become commonplace. Grace Murray Hopper College thus honors her spirit of innovation and public service while looking fearlessly to the future.”
It remains unclear when the official name change will take place. The official process has already begun and has been underway since August, when the school’s trustees, president and the Witt Committee began talks about the efficacy of having a building dedicated to Calhoun. While this change is certainly a gesture of goodwill and a sign of some national progress, however small, on matters of race and tolerance, this does beg the question of why Calhoun, a figure widely reviled both presently and during his lifetime, was given such high respect and prestige by the institution in the first place. Given Yale’s history as an abolitionist school and an institution concerned first and foremost with human dignity, it is troubling that a rich white male was able to carve his name so indelibly into the academy—and perhaps more troubling that the building was given this moniker to begin with.
It is perhaps most fitting to end on a quote from Hopper herself: “Humans are allergic to change. They love to say, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’ I try to fight that.”