Naming and Recognition

Caltech’s Renaming Committee has Forced a Harsh Reckoning with the Institute’s Past

By Raha Riazati | Published 09/28/2020
Naming and Recognition
Left, a publication from the Human Betterment Foundation; Center, Robert S. Millikan; Right, Albert Ruddock

The past 6 months can be undeniably summarized as a whirlwind of change. Catalyzed by a ravaging pandemic that has utterly exhausted most economic resources, long-simmering issues facing minority groups, such as racism, xenophobia, sexism, and income inequality have again reared their heads, as have attempts to address and solve them.

The exemplar of sweeping social movements sparked by the hardship of coronavirus is Black Lives Matter, a powerful anti-racist movement that gained renewed momentum after the death of George Floyd on May 25th. As protests in support of Black lives and against the policies that seek to marginalize them broke out across the country, individuals and institutions across the country began to examine their own history and prejudices, seeking to take any action necessary.

It is only natural that such a widespread movement also affected Caltech’s campus. On July 22, university president Thomas Rosenbaum announced the formation of a Committee on Naming and Recognition, purported to discuss whether and how to rename buildings such as the Millikan Library, Chandler Dining Hall, Ruddock House, and the Watson Laboratories, buildings named after individuals associated with the eugenics campaign that categorized and degraded individuals based on race.

The Committee on Naming and Recognition, made up of trustees, professors, and students with knowledge of scientific, social, and racial history, will consider various factors, including the problematic and offensive actions of each of the individuals for whom these buildings are named, Caltech’s commitment to be both a beacon of science and inclusivity, and practical limitations like contractual obligations; they will then make recommendations to the president regarding how best to proceed. The president has promised to have finalized recommendations by the end of the calendar year, underscoring the urgency of this committee’s task.

Left, Harry Chandler; Right, Thomas J. Watson

Left, Harry Chandler; Right, Thomas J. Watson

This declaration of change from President Rosenbaum came after UCLA political science professor and Caltech alum Dr. Michael Chwe (BS ‘85, Blacker) started a petition calling for Caltech to remove the names of scientists associated with the California eugenics movement from its buildings and grounds. Dr. Chwe describes his inspiration for starting the petition as the result of reading about students and alumni at other universities, among them Princeton University and Pomona College, discussing whether to remove Robert Millikan’s name from buildings on their own campuses. Feeling rather confused, he conducted some of his own research and was shocked at Millikan’s ties to a virulent race science.

“The more I read, the worse it got,” he remarks. Having realized the full scope of Millikan’s bigotry and the forced sterilization enacted partly due to his support, Chwe felt shocked and even ”betrayed that Caltech faculty taught [him] that [Millikan} was a person worthy of admiration”. After all, as Women in BBE leader and graduate student Jessica Griffiths explains, “[Caltech]’s own values displayed on the website…are in direct contrast with [the] message that is conveyed by having three buildings named after prominent Nazi-sympathizers and eugenicists (Millikan, Ruddock, and Chandler)”. Dr. Chwe noticed this contradiction and attempted to remedy it by starting a petition that would go on to gain 1032 signatures.

Hearing such ringing, harsh, and perhaps uncomfortable criticisms of Nobel Prize winners and House namesakes might lead to questions and pushback if the history of Caltech, and the chief institution promoting eugenics in California, the Human Betterment Foundation, is not carefully examined. The Human Betterment Foundation was an organization devoted to supporting research on race science and

the forced sterilization of women deemed not evolutionarily “fit” to bear children. Robert Millikan, famous for quantifying the elementary electric charge, winner of a Nobel Prize, and probably the most revered scientific icon at Caltech with his name adorning the illustrious 9-story Millikan Library, Millikan Pond, and the Athenaeum’s Millikan Suite, was a leading figure in this Foundation. He strongly advocated for the forced sterilization of poorer women, who were almost always Black, Latinx, and indigenous, so as to “help” natural selection advance the survival of “superior” humans who were more intelligent and well-adapted to society; not surprisingly, these “superior” humans were almost always white and male.

The Human Betterment Foundation was rather well-received by the California scientific community and its members included Harry Chandler and Albert Billings Ruddock. Chandler, for whom Chandler Dining Hall is named, was a staunch defender of eugenics and, as the then editor-in-chief of the Los Angeles Times, allowed columns on the need for “better breeding habits” to flourish under his leadership. Albert Billings Ruddock, Ruddock House’s titular figurehead, was on the Board of Trustees of the Human Betterment Foundation and helped to establish the E.S. Gosney Research Fund, a fund that still exists today, as part of the Human Betterment Foundation; the fund specifically granted financial support to Caltech scientists investigating the biological distinctions of race. The E.S. Gosney Research Fund points to a more disheartening truth: Caltech’s historical tie to the Foundation does not simply manifest in the activities of a few individuals. After World War II, the foundation was dissolved, and Caltech assumed all of its financial assets and activities. As Dr. Chwe delineates, “Caltech is the direct institutional successor of the Human Betterment Foundation” and, noticeably, “has never disavowed its activities”.

This knowledge of the doings and beliefs of a significant portion of the Caltech community of the past becomes even more flagrant when remembering that much of the Nazi race science of the 1930’s and 1940’s was developed on the basis of the California eugenics movement and took direct inspiration from the Human Betterment Foundation. Perhaps the clearest link to Nazi race science comes with Thomas J. Watson, for whom the Watson Laboratories of Applied Physics are named. Watson was not only the innovative CEO of IBM, but also a close business associate of Adolf Hitler; he furnished the Nazis with punch-card machines that helped to accurately count and track the Jewish populations of Germany and countries under Nazi occupation.

So far, it seems that much of the Caltech student community is in favor of revising building names to reflect the values and diversity of the current Caltech community. Out of 295 students surveyed by The California Tech, 48.5% were in favor of renaming Millikan Library, Chandler Dining Hall, and the Watson Labs, while 34.5% supported the renaming of Ruddock House. Noticeably, 27.8% of students were unsure about the renaming of Millikan, Chandler, and Watson while 40.7% of students were unsure about the renaming of Ruddock. This large amount of uncertainty may be due to the fact that students are largely unaware of the ties of these scientific figures to the eugenics movement. After all, the dark sides of leading scientific individuals are often not taught in schools or publicized in Caltech science lessons, as Dr. Chwe himself mentioned. It may be difficult for students to support the renaming of buildings when they don’t know exactly why the buildings should be renamed in the first place.

That is why certain student organizations, among them the Caltech Feminist Club, are taking the lead in advocating for the renaming of these buildings and educating their members. Club leadership asserts, “We must rename these spaces to challenge the notion that being a great scientist and being a great person can be mutually exclusive things”. They currently propose changing the buildings names to

celebrate lesser known but equally stellar scientists who are Black, indigenous, Latinx, or identify as women or LGBTQ+; ideas include Assistant Professor Katie Bouman, who captured the first image of a black hole, Katharine Johnson, a mathematician instrumental in American space travel, and Caltech’s own Nobel Laureate Professor Francis Arnold. The Feminist Club also supports BSEC, or Caltech’s organization of Black Scientists and Engineers, in its demands that Caltech fund more diversity encouragement programs and admit more students from underrepresented minorities to campus. These sentiments are echoed by Dr. Chwe and Griffiths, who explain that the Caltech community and administration must recognize that science and politics are not separate spheres and push for greater education and racial equity on campus, both in specific policies and in overall attitude.

For as the renaming issue has demonstrated, science and society are almost always inextricably linked. Eugenics, in fact, arose as an attempt to apply scientific principles of natural selection to social constructs of race and gender. Therefore, it does not seem too outlandish to consider how Caltech, and its students, faculty, and staff, plan to manage this balance between science and society, between honoring discovery and respecting history, between technical greatness and ethical responsibility.

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