A Difficult Conversation

August 31, 2015

Two days ago, in Woolsey Hall, Dean Jonathan Holloway and I welcomed the Yale College Class of 2019 to campus. It was my eighth speech at a Freshman Assembly—five as dean, and now three as university president—but it was an unprecedented experience for me both because of the deeply challenging nature of the topic and because it is a topic that matters so much.

Those of you on campus—and those who received the dean’s and my message to Calhoun College alumni over the weekend—know that I am referring here to the opening of a conversation about the name Calhoun, a community-wide dialogue about whether a historical figure whose beliefs about slavery are abhorrent to us today should continue to lend his name to one of the university’s most treasured spaces. As Dean Holloway and I discussed on Saturday, this is a matter that is in no way simple or straightforward: we cannot rewrite history, nor should we attempt to do so. And although we are focusing on the naming of one residential college, it raises important questions about the criteria by which we might consider any name, sign, or symbol on our campus that holds associations to a painful past.

I hope that you will visit the web page we have created to foster discussion and gather input: http://yalecollege.yale.edu/open-conversation. In addition to the text of the Freshman Assembly speeches, the site offers historical information, recommended resources, a listing of related events that will take place, and a form you can use to send us your thoughts on the subject.

For me, it is a source of great pride that Yale is a university founded on and dedicated to the pursuit of lux et veritas—of light and truth. It is a place where the most important conversations can and should and do take place. It is a community unafraid to take on challenges, to consider weighty matters with care and mutual respect, and to render positive outcomes from the most difficult of circumstances.

As I said to the Class of 2019 on Saturday morning: “Let’s get started together. Let’s get started today.