Yale College dean leaving New Haven to become provost at Northwestern University
NEW HAVEN >> Jonathan Holloway, the outgoing dean of Yale College, previously served nine years as head of Calhoun College, supporting a community just before it was thrust into public controversy.
But Holloway, 49, who will leave Yale June 30 to become provost of Northwestern University, may be remembered more for his role in another controversy, one that erupted over issues of how Yale deals with issues of race, gender and ethnicity. On Nov. 5, 2015, Holloway, the first African-American dean of Yale College, stood for three hours on Cross Campus listening to the anger and hurt of students who felt he and the rest of the administration hadn’t responded to their grievances.
“Listening to these students’ anger and heartbreak and disappointment was heartbreaking because I know these students,” Holloway said. “They were not anonymous students to me. So to hear people you know talk about pain, anger … disappointment — unless you have a heart of coal it affects you.”
The 2015 incidents and the administration’s response — or lack of it — spread via text and email across campus until hundreds of students gathered to vent their frustration and rage.
First there was an email written by Erika Christakis, then the associate master of Silliman College, taking issue with a message from the Intercultural Affairs Committee, which sought to raise awareness of dressing for Halloween in a costume that might offend others. “Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious … a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?” wrote Christakis, an expert in early childhood education who left her post as a lecturer at Yale after the incident. She and her husband, then-master Nicholas Christakis, also left their positions at Silliman.
Then there was a fraternity Halloween party, which allegedly restricted its female guests to white women.
Holloway, who had quickly written an email condemning swastikas found chalked on the campus grounds in October 2014, did not act as quickly after the 2015 incidents. As he entered Cross Campus that November, he began hearing chants of “Where’s my emails?” he said.
“I was teaching in my lecture course literally the history of black student radicalism,” Holloway said. “I went out there just to be present and to offer my support by being there.”
A scholar of post-Emancipation history found himself hearing familiar words.
“Students were talking about their frustration at not being seen as a Yale student … They are seen as an interloper on their own campus,” said Holloway, themes that resonated from the 1960s and ’70s.
“We’re saying, ‘this place is yours, we are here for you,’ and to hear students believe that wasn’t the case, it pained one to hear that.”
The Halloween incidents were followed by more protests over the name of Calhoun College, which Holloway served as master from 2005 to 2014. It wasn’t until he left to become dean that that controversy boiled over, eventually involving protests by city residents and Yale employees as well as students.
He said that while he was Calhoun’s master — a title since changed to head of college — he wasn’t in favor of renaming the college. “As an historian, I get very uncomfortable about name changes,” he said.
“What students now don’t understand is that students of an earlier era had no idea who John Calhoun was,” he said. “It was just a name on a building. When I explained who it was, they were horrified.”
While many sites at Yale are named for men who were slaveholders or benefited from the slave trade — including Elihu Yale — Calhoun stood out for his vocal support of chattel slavery, calling it a “positive good” for blacks.
“My worry was, if Yale changed the name, it would pat itself on the back,” Holloway said. “We must hold the university’s feet to the fire on this, and that’s why we can’t change the name.”
It was “a teaching moment,” Holloway said. “I loved the fact that I was the master of Calhoun and he could not have imagined me. That was important.”
But on June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof murdered nine African Americans at a church in South Carolina. That was “a tipping point,” Holloway said, convincing him that the name needed to be changed.
He said minority and female students’ grievances are “always going to be there, but it’s not like it was in the fall of 2015. That was a magnitude of difference. … I had never experienced a moment like that in my entire academic career. … It was a moment of such convulsion.”
Finally, in February, Yale President Peter Salovey reversed an earlier decision and announced the college’s name would be changed to Grace Hopper College.
Professor Julia Adams, who succeeded Holloway as head of Calhoun — the college’s name will change officially on July 1 — said of Holloway, “He did quite a bit to educate students about the history of Calhoun College, the complexity of the struggle surrounding the name and to instill unity in spite of all that.”
She said that when she moved into the college, “I noticed that the community was very strong [and] that the traditions of the college were healthy and the whole community really had each other’s back in good times and bad.” She gave credit to the leadership shown by Holloway and his wife, Aisling Colón, who was associate master.
Antonio Medina, a sophomore who was involved in last year’s protests, said of Holloway, “Personally, people have very different views but I thought he was responsive to the student body. I thought he was a good dean.”
Rachel Okun, a junior, called Holloway “a figure of real gravitas but also real comedic relief. I think I’ll always be grateful to him for how he handled the rallies and teach-ins last year. He was a really gracious listener. I definitely didn’t feel like he was walled off in any way.”
Noah Strausser, a junior, said he thought Holloway “was one of the best at handling the issues. He seemed to always be coming from a perspective of always being on our side.”
Sara Samuel, a 2015 Yale graduate who’s now at Columbia University, said in an email: “I think Dean Holloway handled controversy on campus with the same poise and authority he displayed as Master of Calhoun. I learned a ton from him because he is approachable and friendly, but also an inspiring leader who really listens to his students.”
Professor Stephen Pitti, director of Yale’s Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity and Transnational Migration, and head of Stiles College, said Holloway dealt with the issues he faced with “patience, wisdom and generosity.”
“The year took a toll on everyone, on all of us who care about students and who care about the issues that were being debated on campus and who care about Yale College, but I think Dean Holloway showed a lot of flexibility, resolve and persistence throughout the year.
While the controversies put a spotlight on Yale, Holloway lists among his accomplishments his role in the expansion of the residential colleges to 14 next fall with the opening of Benjamin Franklin and Pauli Murray colleges off Prospect Street. The northward expansion “shifts the center” of campus, “moving it … a little bit further towards what’s going to be the Schwarzman Center,” once known as Yale Commons, he said.
With the largest freshman class in Yale history, about 1,550 students, arriving next semester, “There’s no doubt it’s going to make access to some courses a little more difficult but that should be pretty smooth,” Holloway said.
“The president has made it a point to open up the doors more broadly than before,” with more first-generation college students and more minorities, Holloway said. “You’ve got more students coming in; we need to be better helping them translate what it means to be at Yale.”
While acknowledging that Yale’s faculty and curriculum are not as diverse as they ought to be, Holloway does see progress, noting that “students at a university believe the university they see before them is fixed in time.”
Among the 250 people who work in Yale College, Holloway sees a much more diverse population, including “a radical change in who’s running the residential colleges.”
According to Adams, “One of the things that was really inspiring about him was that he was an excellent, caring leader but he could also have fun, letting his hair down on things like trivia night.”
When he became dean in 2014, however, Holloway realized his job lacked much of the joy he had experienced at Calhoun, because he no longer had day-to-day a lack of contact with students. So he launched a series of “Lunches with Dr. J.,” giving him a chance “to have direct contact, unfiltered contact with students — no agenda, let’s just talk. Every week I have one of those lunches with students — that’s the highlight.”
The lunches have helped Holloway’s reputation for accessibility. He described “being stopped on the sidewalk by a student who wants to just chat for a few minutes,” he said. “I’m honored by the fact that students feel comfortable approaching me. That’s a good feeling.”
He said he’ll likely start a similar tradition at Northwestern, because the job of provost is even more removed from interacting with students, although it’s work he also enjoys. There will be “lots of policy decisions, lots of institutional-direction decisions, and I find that really interesting work,” Holloway said.
He knows he has a lot to learn about the Big Ten school in Evanston, Illinois. “I’ve actually Googled Northwestern cheers to figure out what they’re saying,” he said.
“I love New Haven. It’s a great little town, but it has a different vibe and I found Evanston to be an incredibly welcoming place.”
Holloway said he and Colón were “high school sweethearts [who] went our separate ways and found each other again.” They have a daughter, Emerson, 17, and a son, Ellison, 14. Holloway first arrived at Yale in 1990, earning a doctorate in history in 1995 and joining the faculty in 1999.
Pitti called Holloway “an extraordinary leader in Yale College. … He brings real wisdom about the wider world to his work on campus. He also has been very attentive to the fact that our students come from all over the globe, including New Haven, and that so many of them are the first in their families to attend college or at least to attend a college like this one.”
Lauren Davila, a junior who’s involved with La Casa, the Latino Cultural Center at Yale, said students of color have appreciated Holloway’s presence. “He’s been a really accessible figure in the administration.”
lHolloway said he’s handing the job of Yale College dean to a capable successor in Marvin Chun, a professor of psychology and of neuroscience, who Holloway said was “masterful” as head of a residential college, Berkeley, for nine years.
“What is great is that Marvin truly is a friend and we’ve worked together on a lot of things,” Holloway said. “He knows the [residential] colleges like the back of his hand and that’s his great strength.”
Chun returned the compliment, saying in an email, “Dean Holloway has been excellent in his role, broadly admired and appreciated. He is leaving the Yale College Dean’s Office in terrific shape, and because we are good friends who worked together for many years on the Council of Heads of College, I fully expect that it will be a smooth transition.”
University President Peter Salovey commented in an email that “Dean Holloway has been an innovative steward of Yale’s educational mission. He was instrumental in paving the way for a smooth and successful expansion of Yale College. … He has been a calm, compassionate, and unswervingly wise leader for the college and our wider campus. His departure is a huge loss for Yale, but we are excited for him and wish him the best as provost of Northwestern University. No matter where he goes, he will always be a member of the Yale family.”
For all that Holloway has brought to Yale, as a teacher, college head and administrator, he knows that “2015-16 just overwhelms the fact of my time; that’s just the fact of it.”
“I guess my truest hope is that the students … come to see that I was in service to them. That’s what I would hope.”
Call Ed Stannard at 203-680-9382.