To Rename or Not to Rename

You might find this piece by Jim Sleeper at The Politic on the controversies about naming at Yale University interesting:

Holloway’s America and mine was still the country where Joan Baez, a progressive’s progressive, had moved audiences of all persuasions by singing Robbie Robertson and The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” a song that enfolds the Confederacy’s “lost cause” romantics empathetically into a larger American civic culture. If there wasn’t much controversy in 2009 about Calhoun College and the title of “master,” it wasn’t because no one was “woke” to history’s cruelties and ironies; it was because there was more hope for a shared civic and political culture. No one was more “woke” to that culture’s defaults than Holloway, an intellectual historian of black America, but he had wiser ideas and inclinations, honed since his childhood, about how to confront America’s racial cruelties and ironies.

Now that Yale is stirring again, as it was in 2015, with controversies over re-namings – a somewhat nasty rehashing of what was accomplished and lost in renaming Calhoun College for the late, pioneering Yale computer scientist Grace Hopper, and a rising resistance to the university’s renaming of its historic Commons dining hall as the “Stephen A. Schwarzman Center” – we need to reassess Holloway’s admonition that “The real work for a place at Yale is not about the name on the building. It’s about a deep and substantive commitment to being honest about power, structural systems of privilege and their perpetuation.”

My own view is that a lot could be accomplished by treating students as the product rather than the customer (most don’t actually pay the bills) and gently suggesting to students who are not happy about how things have been conducted at Yale might be happier attending a school that wasn’t named for an officer of the East India Company and notoriously corrupt colonial governor. Just a thought.

7 comments… add one
  • steve Link

    “My own view is that a lot could be accomplished by treating students as the product rather than the customer”

    This is not likely to change since even the elite schools compete for students, just a different group, ie the ones whose parents can donate lots of money to the school. No matter what you do there will always be a customer aspect.

    “what was accomplished and lost in renaming Calhoun College for the late, pioneering Yale computer scientist Grace Hopper”

    This seems like a lot of much ado about almost nothing. How many kids really pay attention or care about building names? Is it really that uncommon to rename buildings? No, but the renaming does usually follow a large donation, so I dont think there is anything sacred about these names. One way or another, it is always about the money.


  • Gray shambler Link

    We have here in Lincoln a street formerly named Capital Parkway,as it runs right by the state capitol. In order to satisfy current fashion, it was renamed a few years ago after Rosa Parks, who would probably wonder why herself. Curiously, Nebraska has a serving state Senator with almost 40 years tenure, ‘re-elected after a six year absence because of term limits they passed specifically to get rid of him. The only African American State Senator we’ve ever had. Should have been Senator Ernie Chamber’s Parkway. He’s just too uppity.

  • Actually, these two re-namings at Yale have generated a lot of student reaction, in ways that I think point us far beyond Yale. In the Politic essay that Dave Schuler has linked, see the links to two other, shorter columns — in The Washington Monthly and especially in Dissent. Jim Sleeper

  • Thanks for commenting, Jim. Come back and visit some time.

    Steve, Yale has a waiting list. Also more than half of the students receive financial aid or, in other words, their parents aren’t the ones who can be expected to “donate lots of money”.

  • steve Link


    The schools compete for the ones who are able to donate, and there are also plenty of those at Yale.

    “The school says that families with household incomes of less than $65,000 are not expected to contribute any funds to pay for their students education and families that make between $65,000 and $200,000 contribute between just 1% and 20% of their annual income.

    While this generous financial aid may make Yale affordable for lower, middle and some upper class students, many students who attend Yale come from wealthy families and earn more than $200,000 a year.

    According to The New York Times, the median family income of a student from Yale is $192,600. Roughly 69% of Yale students come from the highest-earning 20% of American households. About 19% come from families in the top 1% of American wealth distribution.”


  • U. S. News reports it somewhat differently:

    At Yale University, 53 percent of full-time undergraduates receive some kind of need-based financial aid, and the average need-based scholarship or grant award is $56,602.

  • steve Link

    Dave they give aid to people making up to $200,000, so a lot of students do get aid. However, that means they have about 47% of students coming from families making over 200k, and some of those are making millions. 19% are in the top 1%. That is what they compete for. If the rich kids and the friends of rich kids are complaining, the school will make them happy.


Leave a Comment