Letters to the Editor

The Calhoun debate

Readers talk back about renaming Calhoun, the title “master,” their favorite places at Yale, and more.

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.

Thank you for inviting a discussion of the renaming of Calhoun College (“Renewed Debate over Renaming Calhoun,” September/October). As a former member of Calhoun during the years of R. W. B. Lewis and B. Davie Napier, I have fond memories of both Calhoun and Yale.

John C. Calhoun was not only a graduate of Yale, but one of the most distinguished political figures in American history. He was a congressman, senator, secretary of war, secretary of state, and vice president of the United States. He was one of a triumvirate of brilliant political figures, along with Daniel Webster and Henry Clay. He advocated states’ rights, limited government, and free trade. To reduce him to being the leading champion of slavery is to do him injustice.

So what are we to do with such a historical figure? In fact, what are we to do with any historical figure? Take them out of their historical context? Shall we rename all of our many institutions bearing the names of Washington and Jefferson because they owned slaves?

Let’s stop being so politically correct and so very, very wrong. Let us accept the wide range of humanity and recognize that we are all situated in a particular historical reality.

I am fervently against renaming Calhoun College. But if, against all good reason and judgment, it is to be renamed, I sincerely hope it will carry the name of Cole Porter, the most brilliant American composer and songwriter of the twentieth century—who also happened to be a Yalie, gay, and disabled, having lost his leg in a riding accident. He’s a hell of a lot more exciting than Abraham Pierson. And he’s politically correct! To quote from Porter, “Bulldog, bulldog, bow-wow-wow, Eli Yale!”

Steven Kovacs ’68
San Francisco, CA


In the debate about Calhoun College (my own residential college), one factor that has not been sufficiently emphasized is the uniqueness of John C. Calhoun’s role in American history. It is very difficult for a person to rise above the basic assumptions of the age, and we should not judge too harshly someone who merely fails to do this. (Thus I join in celebrating George Washington and Thomas Jefferson despite their complicity in the “peculiar institution.”) But Calhoun did not merely acquiesce in long-held assumptions; he was a key figure in creating and reinforcing them. Probably more than any other person he was responsible for laying the intellectual and philosophical groundwork for the defense of slavery.

Although many names that have been memorialized by Yale have dubious connections, in general this is just symptomatic of the complexity of history. But the name of Calhoun stands out over and above all of the others for the magnitude of the evil with which it is associated.

It would be interesting to know if any records exist of the discussions that must have occurred when the colleges were named. The modern civil rights movement was still several decades in the future, and the Confederacy had come to be perceived as nothing more than a romantic lost cause. Seen in this light, it is understandable why the name was chosen, but, nonetheless, the choice was unfortunate even then, and the situation should now be rectified.

Ronald P. Richenburg ’68
Kidlington, England


Judith Ann Schiff, chief research archivist at the Yale University Library (and our Old Yale columnist), says that there is little or no record of the discussion around the naming of Calhoun College. In his history of Yale, George Wilson Pierson ’26 wrote that Jonathan Edwards and Calhoun Colleges were named to honor the “most eminent of Yale’s former graduates in Church and Civil State.”—Eds.


If John C. Calhoun’s name should be banished from the campus, so should, a fortiori, Elihu Yale’s. Yale presided over a slave trade in young children as governor of the East India Company in Madras and was removed from office after just five years for corruption and self-aggrandizement.

However, in deciding whether to change a campus name, the central issue is not the relative merits of Calhoun and Yale. Rather, the crux is what the university aspires to be. As Dostoyevsky taught, “Do not judge our people by what they are, but by what they would like to become.”

Yale once aspired to be one of the world’s great universities. Through confronting history, literature, philosophy, and the arts, scholars and students examined how heroes, scoundrels, scientists, and artists over the centuries addressed their own humanity with their individual talents, imperfections, and contradictions, so as to discover enduring truths about meaning and purpose in life.

During the university’s early mission of training clergymen, the imperfection of mankind was an enduring truth captured in the phrase, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her” (John 8:7). Humility when judging others remains a valued virtue. Thus, why do we think our moral outrage, authority, enlightenment, and judgment today regarding Calhoun are superior to those of almost a century ago, when the university built a residential college at great expense and named it in his honor?

Moreover, seven other residential colleges besides Calhoun are named after slaveholders, and Samuel Morse was a well-known defender of slavery. Is our moral compass today so much better than the university’s in the last century that we should now intervene to change nine residential college names we associate with slavery? Or is Calhoun the designated fall guy?

Thomas Lyman Chun ’63
Atherton, CA


On the use of “master”

Now that Professor Stephen Davis has revealed to me that Yale students are moving off campus and cringing at college teas because of the apparently required use of the title “master” (“Mastering the Language,” September/October), I realize that Yale has not done enough to address this recently uncovered issue which is a cause of such stress to Yale students.

We can’t stop there. I have often chafed under the oppressive baton of a maestro and am deeply offended that I have never been invited to the Masters golf tournament. I am tearing up my master’s degree and quitting my masters swimming program as I write, so as not to cause offense. Davis has inspired me to complain to chess, bridge, ship, martial arts, crafts, and Freemason “masters” and demand that they drop all their titles because they remind me of slavery.

Why, it’s all around me! Why didn’t I see it before? Everything is about slavery! We must immediately purge the curriculum. The word even crept into the Bible, when the politically unaware disciples called Jesus “master.” We can edit that out when we remove all gender references. And “Old Masters”? Let’s burn them!

There is much work to be done. Context is irrelevant when the exquisite sensitivities of today’s undergraduates are involved.

Thomas L. Barton ’64
Los Altos, CA


Your column about the difficulties in determining what to call your residential college master brought back a distant memory. When I was in Pierson College, the master was the Reverend Sidney Lovett. We simply called him Uncle Sid. He and the residents never gave it a second thought.
Roger Gambatese ’57
Davis, CA


A teacher’s influence

As a former student of Linda Peterson (“Linda Peterson, 1948–2015,” September/October), I’d like to acknowledge her teaching. Professor Peterson’s course on nature writing had a major influence on my growth as a student at Yale and was a formative experience I remember fondly.

Professor Peterson introduced me to a world of writing about nature that revealed an ecological vision of relationships and interconnectedness between living things that had ethical, spiritual, cultural, and environmental dimensions and implications. Her teaching and the texts we read expanded my consciousness and sense of kinship with other living things and responsibility for their well-being. It left me brimming with a sense of awe and possibility.

She taught in a way that was gentle and welcoming to all; her interactions with students were consistently kind, respectful, and humble. She cared about what and how we thought and our seminar discussions were patient in their pedagogy and nurturing of insight and encouraging of self-expression.

We often studied outdoors: gathered around a tree on Old Campus discussing Laurens Van Der Post and his writings about the Kalahari Bushmen of Botswana and Namibia; or at East Rock Park looking out over a geologically ancient Connecticut landscape of great and simple beauty while discussing Aldo Leopold. She took us out of Yale and into the world.

It was thanks to Professor Peterson and that course that several years later I would find myself in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve of Botswana visiting the Bushmen community and working with them and local and international NGOs to advance their human rights and defend their land claims and right to water. It is an effort to which I remain committed.

Professor Peterson’s Nature Writing course was a touchstone in my Yale education; it was a key ingredient in the elixir of my learning. It was both grounding and freeing and for both I am most grateful.

Noam Schimmel ’02
Montreal, Canada


Counting trophies—and athletes

Alongside your chart showing Princeton’s dominance in Ivy championships in the last decade (“The Ivy Trophy Case,” September/October), you ask, “What’s in the water in Princeton?” Not only is the water probably better in Princeton, but Yale allots about a third fewer admissions slots for recruited athletes than her sister Ivies, one of the reasons Yale has been in the middle of the Ivy pack for more than two decades. Maybe the new administration can take another look at that policy.

Paul Buckwalter ’56, ’60MAT
Tucson, AZ


No to online PA degree

As a retired risk management professional with over 30 years’ experience, including 20 years as director of risk management in a multi-hospital system with a large in-house physician group practice, I was both surprised and concerned to read that the School of Medicine hopes to establish an online physician-assistant (PA) degree program (“Accrediting Snag for Online Degree Program,” July/August). In today’s litigious society, this is a plaintiff attorney’s dream come true.

Currently, most PAs are well trained and well respected by colleagues and patients alike. I know and have been treated by several PAs personally, and I am impressed with their knowledge and abilities. Recognizing the volume of specific technical knowledge a PA must have, together with the extensive hands-on experience required for completion of training, I seriously doubt an online program would be appropriate for any but a limited portion of the curriculum. I question how such a program would expedite the training of more high-quality PAs to fill the existing void?

The possible use of offsite clinical rotations mentioned in the article opens another can of worms: how to assure comparable quality and consistency of training. Another plaintiff attorney’s dream: more deep-pocket defendants to add if and when a claim arises.

I realize there is a serious physician shortage in many specialties, especially primary care, that will continue to worsen as our population ages. However, I don’t think the answer is to make changes to our medical education programs which may weaken (or appear to weaken) those programs. This can only result in poorer patient outcomes and/or increased litigation costs and exposures.

John R. Lundgren ’55
Westerly, RI


The idea of a “gentleman”

With regard to your recent article on how universities respond to charges of sexual misconduct (“The Toughest Issue on Any Campus,” July/August), your panel’s emphasis on behavioral and legal details misses some basic ideas and ends up being much too lenient on the guys.

Long ago when I was at Yale, there was one offense that could result in disciplinary action—something like “conduct unbecoming of a gentleman.” Quaint, but the idea of a “gentleman” has some value.

Recently I happened to see Guys and Dolls and I read a little of Damon Runyon. His guys show more respect for their dolls than the Yale men in the article show for their dates.

Men: if you and your date are out having a great time, talking, playing around, and you’re both ready, great! But if you have to persuade her, then it’s your responsibility to make sure she is ready and eager so that you are doing it together. Otherwise, it’s something you are doing to her, and that is trouble. It will seem like rape to her whether or not it meets the legal definition.

If she says stop, or it hurts, or we shouldn’t be doing this, or any other sign that she is unhappy, then you stop and try to help with a little loving care. You may want to wait for another day. Even in a good marriage, sometimes it goes that way.

This isn’t asking too much. There used to be “shotgun weddings.” Now it isn’t nearly as bad. Just remember, the one who leads takes the responsibility.

Ralph Berggren ’54
Santa Fe, NM


Medical marijuana

Psychiatry professor Deepak Cyril D’Souza is undoubtedly correct that more research on the safety and efficacy of marijuana is needed (“How Medical Is Medical Marijuana?” September/October). It is, however, not a good-faith argument against the legalization of the substance for medical use.

As he points out, research on the topic has been forbidden. State legislators perhaps have a duty to respond to the hundreds and thousands of stories of persons whose pain has been reduced. An editorial on how researchers can use data from thousands of quasi-legal smokers would have been more to the point.

Fred Graf ’70
Concord, NH


More on Levin’s bonus

The size of Rick Levin’s bonus (“Levin’s $8.5 Million Retirement Benefit,” July/August) is defended in large part by reference to the presumed commercial alternatives that were available to President Levin. I do not find this reassuring.

The elements that have yielded the present preposterous level of CEO compensation seem to include the following: corporate boards tend to run fairly heavily to CEOs of other corporations, present or past. As a group, one suspects, they are inclined to view generous CEO compensation as rather a good thing. When a board retains compensation consultants, one further suspects, the consultants chosen are not going to be known for their parsimony. A race to the top is further generated by the egos involved: no one wants to be known for sitting on the board of some penny-ante outfit, or for having a CEO who isn’t among the very best (as demonstrated by his/her compensation).

Let me just add that whatever generosity I might feel toward the Alumni Fund has always met resistance from my wife, who looks at Yale’s endowment and suggests that there are greater needs elsewhere. The Levin episode will not make my life easier in this regard.

Bill Doying ’62, ’65LLB
Alexandria, VA



We made an editing error in a letter from Bernadette O’Brien ’75 about the 1974 Shockley incident (Letters, September/October). O’Brien had originally written of “1–2 rows of true instigators, the group that made the invitation”; we accidentally changed it to “12 rows.”

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