The recent protests by college students across the country are mostly about racial insensitivity and charges of discrimination and mistreatment on campuses today. But there also are complaints about what students see as symbolic vestiges of a racist past. Some of these objections are more valid than others, but even the worthy ones raise difficult questions for institutions that revere tradition but also have obligations to the current generation of students.
On Wednesday, Princeton University announced it would no longer refer to the heads of its residential colleges as "masters," a term inspired by the ancient universities in England. Dean of the College Jill Dolan said the title "heads of college" better captures "the spirit of their work and their contributions to campus residential life."
Maybe so, but the name change also was a response to a concern, also voiced at Yale, that the term "master" is racially offensive because it could be associated with slavery. Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber seemed to allude to that fanciful theory when he said that the word "master" had "discomfited some students, faculty and the heads of college themselves." Never mind that the title of master of a college has no more to do with a slave master than it does with a master chef. (It is more similar to master's degrees, which presumably Princeton will continue to confer.)
Much less frivolous are demands that colleges rename buildings or programs identified with historical figures who supported slavery or segregation. At Yale, some students want the university to find a new name for Calhoun College, named after the 19th century politician John C. Calhoun, a Yale graduate, U.S. senator, vice president — and one of the nation's fiercest defenders of slavery. At Princeton, a group known as the Black Justice League has called for the name of Woodrow Wilson, the 28th president of the U.S., to be stripped from a residential college and the Wilson School of Public Policy and International Affairs.
It's certainly understandable that African American students would feel uncomfortable residing in a college named for Calhoun, who is best known for championing the slaveholding Southern states. Wilson is a more complicated case. Historians say he harbored racist views, and note that as president he resegregated the federal workforce. Yet his legacy is much larger and includes his role on the world stage. A former president of Princeton, he is also a more significant figure in that university's history than Calhoun was in Yale's.
We can see why African American — and other — students object to honoring historical figures who held noxious views about race. Yet the sad reality is that the United States has a long history of racism and many of its founders were slaveholders. There is no easy answer to the question of whether or when the names of racist historical figures should be removed from buildings or monuments. In some situations, an attempt to eliminate offense can amount to rewriting history. Better in those cases to acknowledge the history and learn from it. In other cases, the names should go.