Schrödinger’s Salovey

August 2, 2016
Quinn Shepherd

Yesterday, Yale President Peter Salovey reminded students of the rotting horse at their feet by continuing to beat it. Salovey’s University-wide email announced the “the formation of a Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming”. We expect the Committee’s major achievement to be having the most Orwellian-sounding name of Yale’s committees.

The purpose of the Committee, according to Salovey, is to develop “clearly delineated principles to guide the university’s decisions on proposals to remove a historical name from a building or similarly prominent structure or space on campus.” Salovey clearly expects other University institutions to be up for debate next (why stop at Murray College—why not Murray University?). Salovey says that post-Committee, “[Yale] will be able to hold requests for the removal of a historical name—including that of John C. Calhoun—up to [the new standards].” It sounds like the Calhoun conversation, supposedly ended with Yale Corporation’s decision to keep the name this April, is not in fact dead.

That Salovey continues to pander to those in favor of renaming the College is further indication of his Presidency’s failures this past year. He has failed to take a firm stance against safe-space culture and attempts to erase relevant parts of Yale’s history. Rather, he feigns support of the student activists with emails and forums in Battell Chapel that disgust the Right with their groveling and offend the Left with their hollowness.

The influence of this hypocrisy is especially obvious in the most recent Calhoun incident. In mid-June, Calhoun dining hall worker Corey Menafee decided to take justice into his own hands by breaking a stained glass panel in the dining hall. The panel depicted two black slaves carrying baskets of cotton in a field. Menafee was arrested by the New Haven Police Department and later resigned from his position. Menafee’s justification for breaking the panel? He was “tired of it.” “It’s 2016, I shouldn’t have to come to work and see things like that,”Menafee said in an interview, once again calling upon the politics of comfort to justify destruction of property. A month later, the Yale Corporation decided it wanted to be the Cool Dad on Campus. The Corporation rescinded Menafee’s resignation, owing to the “unique circumstances of this matter.”

In this most recent email, Salovey tells students that he has “spoken frequently of, and remain deeply committed to, our obligation to confront this country’s—and our university’s—past, including historical currents of exclusion and racism.” Yet, this obligation fails when a certain set of “unique circumstances” arise. It fails when responding to the destruction of windows depicting Yale’s fraught history with slavery. It fails when it makes Salovey and the Corporation the subject of angry posts in Marginalized Safe Spaces at Yale.

Of the other panels located around Calhoun, Salovey says they will be “relocated, conserved for future study, [or] contextualized in an exhibition elsewhere at Yale.” If Menafee’s crime was so understandably unique to go unpunished, why not destroy the rest of the stained-glass pieces? If Yale can excuse the destruction of history—uncomfortable, ugly, tone deaf as it may be— to avoid a PR headache, why save any of the panels?

History can only be remembered and acknowledged if artifacts of it exist. By destroying the stained-glass panel, the name of Calhoun, and perhaps one day the name of Yale itself, the Left destroys the institutional memory of painful and awkward parts of Yale’s legacy. It would be all too easy, and maybe in Yale’s better interest, to ignore its history. Activists are, in the name of justice, making it that much easier for Yale to fudge its record when it comes to people of color.

Instead of hiding from the painful bits of the past that lurk around Yale, the Left should be brave enough to look them squarely in the face, whether it be a portrait of Calhoun or a panel depicting his slaves. Salovey must ignore his scholarship in emotional intelligence to fulfill his duty as the President of Yale. He must be willing to trade pain for wisdom and anger for remembrance. If not, we risk losing the character—and very identity—of Yale itself.