Yale college removes portraits of white men to promote diversity, then install them

Yale University, founded in 1701, is the third oldest institution of higher education in the U.S.

(REUTERS/Michelle McLoughlin)

The head of one of the Yale University residential colleges said this week that he is wrong when he announced that the portraits of his white male predecessors would be taken.

In a Nov. 1 e-mail to students, Pierson College head Stephen Davis wrote that the portraits, which were initially deleted to make space for the college is the annual Halloween dance, would not immediately be put back as usual.

“In the context of campus-wide conversations about diversity and inclusion in the public art and imagination,” Davis wrote, “… we have decided to have the walls empty for the time being, in the hope that the empty walls will start asking for a conversation about what it means to the advantage of the common areas where everyone has a sense of belonging and ownership.”

Davis’ e-mail added that the fellows’ portraits would be moved to the college’s Fellows Lounge, and noted that the administrators would “work on the development of plaques/labels for … on the occasion of their historical context and meaning.”

In place of the former heads of Pierson College — a prestigious club that includes a journalist, John Hersey, composer Quincy Porter, and historian Gaddis Smith — Davis said the students would be given an opportunity during a “guy” for making portraits of himself and another for the view in the dining room. Davis concluded the email by encouraging them to: “bring your voice and your artistic skills to the table as we continue our efforts to Pierson College for a more just and welcoming place.”

On Tuesday night, Davis denied in a post on the college’s Facebook page that he intended to remove the portraits permanently from the dining room, and claimed that they would be restored after a specified period of time.

Davis wrote his original plan of the portraits had been “complicated by a number of painting planned for the Fellows in the Lounge,” and announced that they would be restored to the dining room, “in addition to the art produced by the members of our community.”

“In connection with our plans moving forward, I expect that the proposals that we make regarding the diversification of our public spaces, including the portraits in honor of my predecessors,” Davis added.

The same day, the Yale College Dean Marvin Chun wrote in an e-mail to the Yale Daily News that he believed that the portraits of the former college heads should remain visible, “both for the preservation of the colleges’ history, and for the honor of the intentions of the alumni, acquaintances and friends who generously commissioned portraits.

“The two goals of reflective Yale community today, and the honor of the past are not mutually exclusive.”

Pierson College, formerly attracted unflattering headlines in the dean June Chu, resigned last May after placing reviews on the website that called people “white trash” and “low class.”

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