Yale college removes portraits of white men to promote diversity, then re-installs them

The head of one of Yale University's residential colleges said this week that he was misinterpreted when he announced that portraits of his white male predecessors would be taken down.

In a Nov. 1 email to students, Pierson College head Stephen Davis wrote that the portraits, which were initially removed to make space for the college's annual Halloween dance, would not immediately be put back up as customary.

"In the context of campus-wide conversations about diversity and inclusion in public art and representation," Davis wrote, "... 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."

Davis' email added that the fellows' portraits would be relocated to the college's Fellows Lounge and noted that administrators would be "working to develop plaques/labels for them ... to mark their historical context and significance."

In place of the former heads of Pierson College -- a prestigious club that includes journalist John Hersey, composer Quincy Porter and historian Gaddis Smith -- Davis said students would be given an opportunity during a "study break" to create portraits of themselves and one another for display in the dining hall. Davis closed the email by encouraging them 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."

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 hall, and claimed they would have been restored after an unspecified period of time. The college head said his initial email and a Yale Daily News story about the portraits had generated  "misperceptions" among students, staff and alumni.

Davis wrote his original plan for the portraits had been "complicated by some painting scheduled for the Fellows Lounge," and announced that they would be restored to the dining hall "alongside the art produced by our community members."

"With regard to our plans moving forward, I fully expect any proposals we make regarding the diversification of our public spaces to be inclusive of the portraits honoring my predecessors," Davis added.

The same day, Yale College Dean Marvin Chun wrote in an email to the Yale Daily News that he believed the portraits of the former college heads should remain visible, "both for preserving the colleges’ histories and for honoring the intentions of alumni, fellows and friends who generously commissioned these portraits.

"The two goals of reflecting Yale’s community today and honoring its past are not mutually exclusive."

Pierson College previously drew unflattering headlines when its dean, June Chu, resigned this past May after posting reviews on the website that called people "white trash" and "low class."