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July 5, 2020 3:27 am

Yale Fails at the Renaming Game

avatar by Jerold Auerbach


Yale University Law School in New Haven, Conn. Photo: Juan Paulo Gutierrez/Flickr.

The headline of a full-page ad in The New York Times (July 2) — “Rename Yale Now” — immediately caught my attention. And the subheading upped the ante: “By all means, rename the Ivy League university founded on the riches of a slave-trader. But replace it with a more honorable name.” With great respect for Roger Kimball, its distinguished author and journalist, I warily began to read.

My immediate reaction was: Here we go again. As a 40-year veteran of academic political correctness (at Wellesley College), mercifully terminated with my retirement a decade ago, I was all too familiar with unrelenting efforts on the left to expunge the past in favor of a “multicultural” future. It meant, in translation, that favored minorities (especially African-Americans) would become beneficiaries of lowered standards of student achievement and faculty appointment and promotion.

“#CancelYale,” I learned, has become a favorite on Twitter and other social media. I wouldn’t know since I have nothing to do with any of them. But as a historian, whose legitimate professional range is everything that happened before today, I was intrigued. Especially when the ad referred to “the effort to control the present by destroying the past.” Professionally committed as a historian to the past, I certainly understood that “the past” is malleable, subject to endless reinterpretation and revision. But once upon a time there were limits, dictated by evidence and intelligence.

Political correctness, I knew, was hardly new at Yale. Not long ago, under the guidance of president Peter Salovey, it had changed the name of its undergraduate Calhoun College. It was named after alumnus and valedictorian John C. Calhoun, the renowned (and now reviled) South Carolina supporter of slavery who served as Secretary of War, Secretary of State, United States Senator, and Vice President. Not, one might say, a flimsy record of public service.

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President Solovey, who touted “the free exchange of ideas in an ethical, independent, and diverse community,” nonetheless appointed a “Committee to Establish Principles for Renaming.” It confronted a monumental task, since Timothy Dwight, Calhoun’s Yale mentor, along with three other distinguished 19th century graduates, were slave-owners with Yale undergraduate colleges named after them.

Indeed, Kimball wryly suggests that this history of renowned slave-holding benefactors with Yale degrees might require a change in the name of Yale College. After all, generous benefactor Elihu Yale, after whom it was named, was an administrator in India who required ships leaving for Europe to carry at least ten slaves. How might Yale alums who have relied upon their Yale degrees to launch successful careers (with highly remunerative rewards) respond to such a worthy display of political correctness?

With sardonic precision, Kimball concludes with a suggestion: why not replace “Yale” with the name of Jeremiah Dummer, who persuaded Elihu Yale to make the financial contribution that launched the College bearing his name. Kimball’s justified laceration of Yale exposes the absurdity of politically correct academic games. Their surge, hardly confined to Yale, has become a plague swarming through “higher” education.

My alma mater, Oberlin College, recently contributed its own subversion of academic integrity. The oldest American co-educational and liberal arts college, the first to admit women and among the first to welcome African-Americans, its recent history, replete with episodes of antisemitic hate speech and politically correct bias, has subverted the meaning of academic freedom.

A now notorious 2016 episode plunged Oberlin into the swamp of political correctness. With shoplifting evidently a rite of passage among students, an African-American student attempted to steal several bottles of wine at Gibson’s bakery, a venerable family business (whose tasty donuts I still remember). When the owner threatened to call the police, the student slapped his face and fled. Pursuing him, Mr. Gibson was assaulted by the thief and two friends. Intimidated by student outrage, the college president suspended its purchasing agreement with the bakery. Gibson’s sued and received $11 million in damages.

The “renaming” of Yale and shaming of Oberlin bear witness to the ferocity of political correctness that has swept through “higher” education.

Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel 1896-2016, selected by Ruth Wisse and Martin Kramer as a Mosaic Best Book for 2019.

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