After removing the portraits of his white predecessors from the dining hall of Pierson College, Pierson College head Stephen Davis is now saying it was all a terrible misunderstanding. Davis earlier proclaimed the removal of the portraits in the interest of the “campus-wide conversations about diversity and inclusion in public art and representation.” All of the prior “Masters” were white. Now, after a backlash, Davis is saying that the portraits will be returned.
Yale recently followed Harvard and other schools in renaming the heads of the colleges from the long traditional “master” to “head” because of what critics said could be confused with slavery references. The problem is that it had no such connection but the history and correct meaning meant little. I was just at Yale and saw the new signs stuck on walls next to the historic references to college masters.
On November 1, Davis emailed students to say that the portraits (which were removed for the Halloween dance) would not be returned but rather relocated. He declared that “In the context of campus-wide conversations about diversity and inclusion in public art and representation, . . . we’ve decided to leave the walls empty for the time being, in the hope that the blank walls will begin to prompt conversation on what it means to create common spaces where everyone has a sense of belonging and ownership.” Instead, the portraits would be relocated to the Fellows Lounge and he said that the administrators would be “working to develop plaques/labels for them … to mark their historical context and significance.” He also said that students would be asked to create their own portraits to “bring your voices and artistic skills to the table as we continue our efforts to make Pierson College an ever more equitable and welcoming place.”
In a new post on the college’s Facebook page Davis now insists that he never sought a permanent removal and pledged to restore the portraits.