Why Yale Must be Yale

A few days ago, upon the announcement that Yale will rename Calhoun College, we at The Neanderthal argued that the University had thoughtfully and appropriately handled a very controversial decision. We acknowledged that any decision where the historical context is condemned and overturned is not a trivial one, and must be undertaken with utmost sincerity. And lastly, we identified certain specific reviews that we believe are pending – namely, Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School, the seal of Harvard’s Law School, and Oxford’s Rhodes. And in each case, we concluded, the conclusion will not be simple.

Now, we take the opportunity to address another potential renaming controversy, which has recently been stoked by opinions in various national publications. Namely, the question of whether all of Yale itself must now be renamed. More specifically, whether the historical legacy of Elihu Yale is problematic in the same way as Calhoun’s, and whether the precedent established in the renaming of Calhoun College leads to one and only one natural conclusion.

And now, to make our position on this very very clear, we must admit the following: We shudder at even the slightest suggestion that Yale will not forever be Yale.

But why is it, we ask ourselves, that we can support the University’s decision when it comes to Calhoun, but be so hostile to a reasoned application of the same principles when it comes to potentially renaming Yale. After all, Elihu in his life embraced much of what we find difficult to forgive in Calhoun. Why then must we not condemn his name in the same way as Calhoun’s.

At this point, we must once again admit: There is no logical legerdemain that leads unassailably to the conclusion we wish to reach (that Yale should not be renamed). There are many shades of grey here (perhaps significantly more than fifty), and anyone who claims that this is a forgone conclusion, one way or the other, has not taken the time to examine the opposition’s arguments.

In fact, Yale’s enumeration of a very extensive set of philosophical guidelines in renaming decisions speaks to the complexity of this issue. Further, some observers have argued that Yale’s decision last year to retain Calhoun’s name was in fact premeditated, and that the recent reversal of that decision was in fact scripted, when the intention all along had been to change the name. Why did Yale go to all this trouble? Simply to establish that the burden of proof in any future renaming decisions is going to be very very high. We fully agree, so it must be.

So why shall we keep Yale as Yale? We posit a simple idea. Yale over the past 300 years has accomplished much that is good, it has established significant goodwill in the country and abroad, and in fact it has grown to be example & benchmark for institutions of similar aspiration all over the world. All these ‘positive goods’ have been achieved independent of Elihu Yale’s personal legacy, and the name Yale is now imbued with these positive associations. In other words, the name Yale now has a life of its own in the popular imagination, in a way that is almost completely unblemished by Elihu’s individual shortcomings.

The same cannot be said of Calhoun College. Calhoun College does not have the same place in the popular imagination, it has not labored to achieve the same degree of positive impact in the world, and the name Calhoun does not essentially represent the identity of Calhoun College in the same way that Yale does of Yale University.

We understand that this is a fine distinction. But we also believe that it is a valid distinction and, if you think hard about it, a significant one.     Yale must always be Yale. No question about it.