The Yale Heraldry

Hopper College’s coat of arms, featured on a plaque above the dining hall fireplace, is hard to miss. The marine emblem, striking in its yellow and blue, seems anachronistic; the coat of arms looks too new and polished to appear fully at home against the wood paneling, stained glass, and chandeliers.

But this juxtaposition is not incidental. After Yale University decided to rename Calhoun College in honor of Grace Hopper in February 2017 and to open up two new residential colleges, Benjamin Franklin and Pauli Murray, it enlisted the Office of the University Printer to design the new coats of arms. A little-known department, the Office is responsible for Yale’s visual identity, which, according to its website, “relies on the consistent and effective use of [Yale’s] branding touchstones.” Those touchstones include Yale’s logo, coat of arms, and typeface, all designed by an office of six but seen by millions.

School of Art graduate John Gambell, official University Printer and keeper of emblematic keys, described Yale’s visual branding as an asset that Yale entities use and return. “Every piece that comes out of Yale needs to be focused on an audience,” Gambell said, emphasizing that the graphics need to represent the culture of the university itself.

When Gambell began to design the new residential colleges’ coats of arms, his task was to both craft something new and pay homage to the old. In planning the Franklin design, Gambell initially hoped to utilize Benjamin Franklin’s family coat of arms, but found it was a “mishmash” of competing elements. “I looked at it, and it was not as good as any of the existing residential college coats of arms,” Gambell said. He began to draft a visual that would, somehow, reconcile the figure of Franklin as he appears in textbooks with a more modern “graphic dynamism.”

The Murray and Hopper coats of arms are similar tugs-of-war between past and present: Pauli Murray’s is inspired by elements of the Scottish Murray family coat of arms, while Hopper’s retains the colors of the former Calhoun coat of arms while adding a dolphin to represent Grace Hopper’s naval leadership. Some view the dolphin as representative of the new shields’ playfulness (“The humorous elements alone are a big breakthrough,” said Hopper Head Julia Adams). This begs the question: As Yale situates itself in a more inclusive era, how much traditionalism is necessary for a living, breathing university?

The University developed its own coat of arms long before the colleges’, and, as one might expect of a heraldic practice fighting for its life in a digital century, the prominence of Yale’s coat of arms has diminished. The shield was derived from the Seal of Yale University and approved in the 1720s. It first appeared on Master’s Degree diplomas in 1749, when Ezra Stiles was president of the University. As a trademark, the coat of arms lost its branding pride of place in 2007, when former Yale Corporation Secretary Linda Lorimer and former president Rick Levin travelled to South and East Asia and found that Yale’s primary identifiers—the bulldog, the coat of arms—were not only unfamiliar but also alienating to the general public. The result was the development of Yale’s primary logo, the “Y”.

“We thought very hard about what heraldry represents, and it is very Eurocentric,” Gambell said. “It was for people who were generally moneyed or had some military connection…There was a feeling that it’s probably appropriate for the general, international, broad audience, to really concentrate on our happy Y-A-L-E.”

And yet heraldry at Yale still flourishes in the residential college system—that much is apparent from college t-shirts and lanyards alone. Most of the colleges’ coats of arms were developed in 1953 by Theodore “Tubby” Sizer, former Yale professor and Art Gallery director, to liven up Yale ceremonies, and were based upon the familial coat of arms of each college’s namesake.

Perhaps as a result of the new insignias’ playful and subversive elements, many view them as a connecting force between the traditional, elitist “Old Yale” and the modern, progressive “New Yale.” For instance, Pauli Murray’s coat of arms has what heraldic language calls a “counterchanged circle” to represent her “transgressive gender expression,” according to the college’s website. Franklin Head Charles Bailyn called the emblems “a nice joining between ancient traditions of universities dating back a thousand years to our current place in the twenty-first century.” Murray Head Tina Lu echoed this sentiment, saying that a coat of arms is “an easy-on ramp to feeling like you belong to something that’s traditional” and stressed that the lighthearted use of the coat of arms—in t-shirts and temporary tattoos—links their traditional usage with a new era.

For some, the appeal lies in the coats of arms’ aesthetic ties to Old Yale and their embrace of the university’s pseudo-medieval identity. “I love how they look like they’re old, like they’ve always been in existence here,” said Franklin first-year Sylvia Kryszczuk.
But for Laura Maldonado-Rivera, a first-year in Pauli Murray, the coats of arms contradict the progress that the new colleges have made in rejecting some of Yale’s exclusive history. “I feel like the new colleges and Grace Hopper…should just embrace their new identity rather than try to even emulate the other colleges,” she said.

It’s possible that the coats of arms are meant as a visual aid, a way to sustain the university as a symbolic, perhaps literal, cohesive whole, to reconcile Old Yale and New Yale and still draw some kind of distinction between the two. But if a breakthrough is what was intended, Gambell’s task seems not only murky or paradoxical, but impossible—to design coats of arms that would fit neatly alongside their ancient, familial counterparts, blend into a residential college dining hall, and still symbolize progress.

Gambell himself acknowledged this tension. “It’s almost like the idea of having coat of arms is sort of de rigueur for universities,” he said. “Almost ironically, the idea of [a] coat of arms…[gives off] a ‘high-level’—some people would argue slightly elitist—kind of impression.” However, he argued that students can embrace or discard their residential college coats of arms, as their essential function is solely within the gates of Yale’s corporate structure.

“It’s sort of arbitrary,” Gambell said of the residential college coat of arms. Arbitrary, even as his office bustled around him, endeavoring to keep the New Yale, Y-A-L-E, alive while it maintains some of the Old. “Heaven knows they can be changed, one of these fine days,” he said, “if the spirit moves the right people.”

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