Rice University’s Student Newspaper — Since 1916

Sunday, March 03, 2024 — Houston, TX

Rice considers changes to ‘master’ title

By Maurice Frediere     3/23/16 4:10pm

The residential college masters and university administration are discussing whether or not the title “master” should be changed, according to Dean of Undergraduates John Hutchinson. These conversations occur on the heels of student protests against the term at other universities due to its historical ties to slavery.

Hutchinson said a decision on whether the term should be changed is not imminent.

“The college masters and I have been in active discussion about the title for quite some time,” Hutchinson said. “We are also engaging the provost and the president in this discussion. Since these discussions are ongoing, it is not yet appropriate to share any of the discussion or any potential conclusions.  Doing so would preempt the conversations which are occurring.” 

After student outcry over the use of “master” to refer to the heads of their residential houses, Princeton University changed the name of the heads of their residential houses in November, and Harvard University followed suit a month later. Yale University is currently reviewing the title and will reach a decision by the end of the school year, while the University of Oxford and Cambridge University both still use the term. Princeton changed the title to simply “head” of a residential college.

The use of the title “master” to refer to the heads of Rice’s residential colleges dates back to 1956, when Rice transitioned from the traditional dormitory system to its current residential college system. The system was based on those at Harvard and Yale, which in turn had adopted the residential housing system as well as the term “master” from Oxford and Cambridge. At Oxford, the use of the term “master” may have originated as a shorthand for “headmaster” or “schoolmaster.”

Duncan College master Caleb McDaniel said the college masters have been devoting some time from each of their campus-wide monthly meetings to discussing their title.

“We formed a subcommittee to look more closely at the issue over the winter break, and a report from the subcommittee was circulated at our January meeting,” McDaniel, a professor of 19th-century American history, said. “But even before last fall, a number of masters had expressed concern that the title no longer accurately represents the jobs that we actually do.”

Student opinion on the matter at Rice is varied.

Brown College junior James Carter said he believes the name should be changed.

“I personally believe that the term should be abolished because I don’t think it reflects the values that a 21st century Rice wants to instill,” Carter said. “In thinking about the term as one drenched in connotations of slavery and masculinity to denote authority, I think Rice could do a lot better for its stakeholders.”

Jed Greenberg, a Jones College freshman, agreed that the name should be changed if it is offensive to some students. He also indicated his appreciation for the dialogue occurring on campus.

“I’m not certain of the etymology of the title, but I’ve read enough English literature to know that it’s been in use since well before the founding of this nation,” Greenberg said. “That being said, if it does evoke the image of slavery and create an unwelcoming environment for some, there’s no reason not to change it. Most of all, I’m glad that we’re able to have a civil conversation on these important issues without descending into the pandemonium that seems all too common on campuses across America.”

Duncan College senior Ashley Buchanan said she believes it is important to contextualize the term, which has been especially evident in her experiences using the term around people who are unfamiliar with  Rice.

“I personally see no problem with the term when it is used in its proper context,” Buchanan said. “When I’m referring to them in front of someone that isn’t from Rice, I call them ‘headmasters’ (Hogwarts style) or ‘residential college masters’ or ‘dorm masters.’”

However, Buchanan said she understood why the term may be offensive. 

“When I was a freshmen and sophomore, it was very awkward for me as a black student explaining to someone outside of Rice why I refer to them as my masters,” Buchanan said.

Alumnus Christopher Buck (Duncan ’15) articulated a different viewpoint and said he felt that the term should be understood in its contemporary rather than historical context. 

“There’s an enormous difference between the roles and titles of ‘early 2000s residential college master’ and ‘early 1800s plantation slave master,’” Buck said. “It would be very misguided to draw parallels between the two. Just because the word  ‘master’ has been used for different roles throughout history doesn’t mean we should eliminate it from our contemporary vernacular.”

Dean of Harvard College Rakesh Khurana, who leads one of Harvard’s residential houses, articulated similar concerns in December when he spoke on the decision to change the title.

“It’s an ancient word that is now being used in a 21st-century context, and that layers on new meanings that we have to grapple with,” Khurana said to the Harvard Crimson student newspaper. “But when we use it in the context of a university in the United States — a country with a history of slavery and of racial discrimination — that adds meaning and significance to the term that we can’t easily dismiss by focusing narrowly on its classical roots.”

Hanszen College freshman Gary Dreyer said he felt student opinion was an important factor to take into consideration.

“I don’t necessarily see the need to change it, but if the majority of students in a referendum demand the change, I think it should be respected,” Dreyer said.

Duncan College junior Sam Herrera expressed a similar sentiment.

“Personally, I don’t have an issue with the term, but if any students/faculty do have issues with it, they should be able to express their opinion and merit some sort of university response,” Herrera said.

Craig Considine, a professor of sociology, said he believes that the title should be changed. Considine said the history of the term mandates university action to remedy the situation. 

“In the imagination of some Rice students, the term ‘master’ evokes slavery, an utterly dehumanizing institution that was especially abominable in the United States,” Considine, whose research focuses on race relations, said. “Under no circumstances should an African-American student be asked to call anyone ‘master.’ University officials should take steps to replace ‘master’ to foster inclusiveness and improve the racial climate among Rice students.” 

There is currently no timeline for when a decision will be made.

Edit: The article previously stated that Rice's residential college system was based off Princeton's, in addition to Harvard's and Yale's. That is incorrect; Princeton's system was founded 23 years after Rice's.

More from The Rice Thresher


Please note All comments are eligible for publication by The Rice Thresher.