Q&A: Tina Lu, Future Head of Yale’s Historic Pauli Murray College

The fall of 2017 will mark the first time in over half a century that Yale University will add two new residential colleges to its ranks, including one bearing the name of Dr. Anna Pauline “Pauli” Murray.

Connie Ma / Creative Commons
Connie Ma / Creative Commons

The selection of Murray marked manifold firsts in the University’s history: This is the first time a residential college would be named after a woman, a person of color and/or an individual who identified as LGBTQ. It also marked the first time many in and outside of the University had heard of the pioneering feminist, civil rights activist, scholar and lawyer.

Appointed as the first Head of Pauli Murray College in July, Yale Professor Tina Lu talked to Ms. about role models, history, scavenger hunts and the excitement and challenges of her upcoming role. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What was your reaction when you found out Yale would be honoring Pauli Murray this way?

Well, to be honest, I didn’t know who she was. Like many other people, I went and looked her up and immediately felt bad, because I think one of the first hits is a Slate story that’s called something like, “You Don’t Know Who She is, but You Really Ought To”. (Editor’s Note: The article, which featured on Salon is entitled, “Black, Queer, Feminist Erased from History: Meet the Most Important Legal Scholar You’ve Likely Never Heard Of”) At that point I was like, “this was a really good call” because this is somebody who really embodies what an institution like Yale should aspire to. My family and I are honored to be living in a college named after [Pauli Murray], and I have all sorts of ideas about how we can honor her in the college.

Murray college presents a lot of firsts. Do you feel an especial responsibility in taking the helm of this particular college at this juncture in Yale’s history?

I feel really honored to be given this responsibility… but I actually feel like, you know, the name is obviously the less important portion of the job. And all of the college heads are doing equally important work as people who’ve been put in temporary charge of these communities of students; it’s part of our most important work as faculty members. As far as Pauli Murray herself, I want our little community to do her justice.

I would love to organize an event around her, bringing in some of the people who’ve worked on her, the author of this recent book about her, [The Firebrand and the First Lady by Patricia Bell-Scott]. We have been talking about how for the first time Murray College and Franklin College are two colleges named after people who wrote wonderful autobiographies of themselves. And so, it has been floated that we might stick a copy of each autobiography in each of the student’s suites for these inaugural classes. I think it would be great to have some kind of informal reading group of Pauli Murray’s autobiography. I hope her spirit infuses the place, because when you’re looking at her life the things that really strike you are, “this is someone who got arrested for refusing to sit at the back of the bus in 1940. What do we take away from that? First that she was seeing far, far ahead, but also that any fight for justice, any fight for anything good takes a long time. You’re going lose a lot of the times before you win. …I feel like there are many, many things to be taken away from her life that kind of, many experiences of rejection.

You know, she tried to get into Harvard Law School before she tried to get into Yale Law School. I have [the sense] that she was growing all the time into her life, which is something that I find incredibly admirable about women from an earlier generation. That their lives, their vision of their lives when they were young [were] circumscribed and that as they grew into their lives that vision just increased and became richer and deeper. And you can see this in Eleanor Roosevelt. I feel that I see this in many of my own role models for women in their 60’s and 70’s. I feel like, maybe this is a model for all human beings: we keep on growing. What our when we’re in our 50’s, and 60’s and 70’s, it builds on what you are in your teens and 20s, and it does seem to be something that these women have led the way on. That’s a takeaway for me.

It’s interesting that you say you hadn’t heard of Pauli Murray, because as you may know, a lot of students, staff, and Yale alumni had to look her up as well. Why do you think that is?

There is a canon. There is a canon of what you need to know. I was an American History major for about fifteen minutes in college and what I strongly felt was that there was this world of American history… that was out there in archives. But so much of what we learn in high school is really informed by state curricula and AP curricula and sort of, “these are the names you need to know” “these are the people” and it’s a really short list… It’s not short simply by randomness. It’s been curated a certain way. I am not in any way denigrating my high school history curriculum. I feel like, if anything, those were the teachers who inspired me want to become a scholar. But, you know, you don’t learn that much and then you don’t learn that much more. And there you have it: then you grow up to be a humanist who’d never heard of Pauli Murray.

You know, when President Salovey opened up a call for idea for the two new colleges, people were proposing all sorts of names. And I think a lot of those other lists had amazing figures that many people had never heard of…. We went on a walk of the construction site and one of the really cool things is that they’ve embedded little tiny, Basque relief sculptures on the sides of the walls. For example, there’s a tiger and underneath it says “fearful symmetry”… they have one that commemorates Grace Hopper… it’s an ongoing fight.

A letter sent to the Yale community in July quoted you describing Pauli Murray as the “embodiment of Yale’s motto lux et veritas, a model of the transformative power of education, the struggle for social justice, and the pursuit of a calling, each in the service of the others.” Can you talk a bit about how those ideas are shaping what you’re doing to prepare for your role?

I don’t know if I want to put myself up to that level! We learn things with many motivations for our pursuit of knowledge at Yale. Some of those are self-interested, and that’s fine, some of them are a pure love of knowledge, and that’s fine. But I think for a lot of us, we’re hoping for things that are morally and personally transformative too. The idea that someone had a whole career, which had many phases of personal development, but in which, this kind of ethically grounded scholarship was actually pretty foundational, feel like that’s very moving. I feel like that…that’s some real role model stuff.

The thing that I think will really resonate with Yale students, [is that] we all know we’re really privileged to be in this wealthy institution. I don’t mean monetarily but really, we breathe this air that is rich in intellectual, moral, [and] aesthetic resources And I think studentsI talk to actually do feel this desire for meaning. “How can I give back?” “How can I make my life meaningful?” in a way that justifies all these wonderful gifts that I’ve been part of. There are many resonances with Pauli Murray’s life [on campus].

Pauli Murray College Seal
Pauli Murray College Seal

Do you anticipate Murray College and its facilities will be another space at Yale where women’s voices, scholarship, and art will be nurtured?

Absolutely. I’m trying to think about various ways to do that. There are various movements around campus concerning public art, and I have already just been quietly been thinking about exciting ways to bring in artists’ voices. I think that every space at Yale should be a place for women’s voices. No more Pauli Murray college than a physics lab or [the hockey rink] or the Beinecke Library. That is just a given!

Are there ways you think Murray, in particular, can distinguish itself as a “new” college? Are there any new traditions you would like to start?

For the immediate future it’s going to seem like Murray, especially, is a little out of the way [from the rest of campus]. My husband [gave] Murray it’s first nickname, which is the same thing people used to call Edinburgh in the 18th century, so he’d like to call Murray “the Athens of the north.” A place for intellectual discussion and community…a little further to the north. Some of it is going to be just the community the individuals bring to a place and foster and knit themselves into. The site is a place that was built for scavenger hunts. So we have some ideas! But we’re also going to play it by ear and see what the students want to do.

In your opinion, what can be done so that more young people who identify with some of the broader aspects of Pauli Murray’s story —women, students of color, LBTQ students, young people from disadvantaged backgrounds who might wish to take up public service, are able to access the advantages of a college education?

I think we try already. We can try more. There are constantly moves, just as you speak of to support first-generation college students. I think there’s a huge pool of international students who also require that kind of support too. I feel like the mission though is about providing support and eye-opening experiences for all Yale students. I feel that there are plenty of people from very, very secure backgrounds who come to Yale and they want to be shaken up some. They want to have their eyes opened too. Part of it is creating a community where we’re all learning from one another. I would love to open up Pauli Murray a little bit more to the community of New Haven.

One of the things that I have really appreciated over the last eight and a half years is getting to know lots New Haveners, many with no affiliation to Yale. One of the things we’ve been talking about creating is this series of talks on “How I Got My Cool Job” with some great folks from New Haven. We know that we all want lives of meaning, how do we get there? I think that’s the kind support and conversation that’s targeted to the whole college community… having those very open conversations [and] creating a space of respect and dialogue. I think we—all of the Heads [of colleges], all of the resident fellows, the [freshmen counselors], the colleges aides–what we bring to this community is who we are and I hope that “who we are-ness” is multidimensional and also diverse.



Lauren Young is a Ms. contributor. She has a Master’s Degree in European and Russian Studies from Yale University and a Bachelor’s Degree in Government and Russian Civilization from Smith College. Follow her on @thatlaurenyoung.