Ivy League schools are re-thinking a longtime tradition, embarrassingly evocative of the United States’ days of slavery. At Harvard and other elite universities, heads of student housing are dropping the title “master.”
On Tuesday, Dec. 1, senior faculty members who serve as heads of residential colleges at Harvard voted unanimously to change the name of their role, currently called “House Master.” Their new titles will be unveiled early next year. In November, Princeton’s masters of residential colleges became “heads,” with the dean of the college Jill Dolan calling the titles “anachronistic, historically vexed.” At Yale, calls to change the title have so far gone unheeded, at least officially.
These titles likely originate with the British term “schoolmaster” or “headmaster,” but in the US they’ve taken on a new connotation. In August, Yale’s Pierson College faculty head Stephen Davis personally asked students to stop from referring to him as “Master,” writing in a letter that “there should be no context in our society or in our university in which an African-American student, professor or staff member—or any person, for that matter—should be asked to call anyone ‘master.'” The Yale community is also debating the heritage of Calhoun College, named after a white supremacist slave owner.
Back at Harvard, the university’s law school has now formed a committee to examine whether its seal, which includes the coat of arms of a slave-holding family, should be reconsidered. The school recently had to deal with a racist incident when photos of tenured black faculty members displayed in the school’s hallways were covered with black tape.
The conversation about titles and seals comes as schools nationwide are embroiled in a debate over racism on campus.