Performance and Power

Cracks form in the Committee on Naming and Recognition

By Raha Riazati | Published 10/27/2020
Performance and Power
Left, a publication from the Human Betterment Foundation; Center, Robert S. Millikan; Right, Albert Ruddock

Shortly after the fall academic term began, Sarah Sam, the only Black individual on the Committee on Naming and Recognition, a graduate student in Neurobiology, announced her resignation from the committee in an open letter addressed to President Rosenbaum, and circulated among the entire Caltech community.

As the president of BSEC (Black Scientists and Engineers) at Caltech, Sam has continuously advocated for changes that would improve racial equity and diversity on a campus that is already struggling at providing opportunities to underrepresented minorities. As a school that does not partake in affirmative action, Caltech’s Black and Latinx student population is extremely low, with Black students in particular making up less than 1% of the total student population. This is much lower than the percentage at peer institutions like Harvard, Yale, and Stanford.

BSEC has wasted no time in attempting to remedy this. The group prepared a 60-page document in June outlining all of the steps that the Caltech administration could take to dismantle Caltech’s legacy of white supremacy and support anti-racism efforts, proposing an increase in funding for diversity-oriented programs such as FSRI, a summer program for new students from underserved backgrounds, and efforts to reduce racial bias in admissions.

The group also proposed a change in the enrollment statistics’ categorizations from “underrepresented minority,” an obscure and misleading term that often includes mixed race and racially white individuals, to allow for separate categories for “Black”, “Latinx”, “Alaskan Native/American Indian”, and “Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander.”

And, of course, the group proposed renaming buildings on campus that currently honor Nazi sympathizers and racists from the institute’s past. BSEC presented their proposal to key members of the Caltech administration at a presentation on June 25th.

Despite this dedication to change, it seems that progress has been frustratingly slow and even nonexistent for the Black community at Caltech. The contents of Sarah Sam’s resignation letter alone provide undeniable proof. She describes how several committee members dismissed Millikan’s views as “private” and “a product of the times,” phrases often used to justify the memorialization of Confederate leaders in Southern states; how committee members did not take it upon themselves to read the testimonies of victims of the forced sterilization practices promoted by Millikan’s Human Betterment Foundation, or to even read the petition started by Dr. Michael Chwe; how she came to realize the committee members were apologists for eugenics, more focused on defending Millikan than having an honest discussion about how he, and his compatriots at the Foundation, were a cog in the machine of white supremacy. It isn’t hard to see the writing on the wall after such glaring assertions, but Sam makes it clear for us anyway: “because of the unwillingness to condemn irrefutable evidence of overt racism,…this committee will be [unable] to complete its charges in a responsible way.”

The university administration’s response to Sam’s scathing indictment of the committee was swift. Ben Rosen, Chair of the Committee, released a statement about his regret at her resignation and his faith that the committee would, in fact, complete its charges, a claim quite at odds with Sam’s anecdotal evidence. Interestingly, Rosen says in his statement “Eugenics is morally reprehensible. That is not up for debate.” Not only does this directly contradict Sam’s resignation letter, it begs the question: then what is up for debate? Is this committee not purported to examine the morality of the aforementioned individuals and the validity of the claims that they do not deserve to be honored at one of the premier science institutes of the world? If the committee has acknowledged that the eugenics movement is “morally reprehensible”, and if objective historical fact tells us that Millikan, Chandler, and Ruddock were the founders of the California eugenics movement, shouldn’t these men also be deemed morally reprehensible? It seems to be a simple application of logic, yet Rosen calls the committee’s task “multi-faceted” and “complex”.

President Thomas Rosenbaum released a statement soon after Rosen, again calling eugenics “morally reprehensible”, and asked for the Caltech community to provide their thoughts on the renaming in a Community Input Form. Opening up the floor to the opinions of the faculty and students seems to be a wise choice that makes the renaming process more democratic, especially since its result affects all members of the community. Yet it is strange that this measure only came after Sam’s public exposé, 2 months after the committee’s formation, almost as an attempt to save face rather than a genuine desire to hear the voices of Caltech students and faculty.

This brings us to the fundamental problem of the Caltech renaming committee: it appears to be primarily performative. Caught up in the social fervor of the Black Lives Matter movement, many corporations, among them Disney and Netflix, pledged to hire more Black creatives and executives to gain good publicity and then failed to deliver on their promises. Scores of Black creatives have reported being ignored in the months following June when they were previously met with faux enthusiasm.
The same phenomenon seems to have occurred here: put under public pressure and shoved into the critical spotlight of the academic community, Caltech pledged to reckon with its uncomfortable past so as to wear the crown of social progress and moral righteousness. But that’s all it is: a crown, a sparkly phantom object that quickly disappeared as soon as attention was diverted. The mere fact that the administration only agreed to implement the most airy and non-substantial measure of BSEC’s list of fundamental reforms indicates how little the Caltech administration truly wishes to change.

Which is why it is absolutely vital that the Caltech community keep up the pressure. If there’s anything Sarah Sam made clear in her resignation letter, it is that she is tired. BSEC, CLASES, and the marginalized communities which they represent are tired. It is not the responsibility of the oppressed to do the emotional labor of sitting in on committee meetings, enduring constant microaggressions, and writing 60-page documents about how to mitigate their oppression, especially when the material for self-education exists in abundance. Yet they do it anyway, because they believe that the Caltech community and the nation at large has the power and potential to change. So it is up to us to do our part as well: to listen, to learn, and to speak out. This becomes clearest in the final section of Sam’s resignation letter, which is perhaps the most powerful and also the most uncomfortable to read. Here, Sam addresses the request for discretion from the committee members on discussions and progress occurring at committee meetings. After all, any question asked of students and faculty on the task force thus far has been met with a polite refusal to disclose any extraneous information out of respect for the all-important Honor Code, a hallmark of Caltech’s academic culture. Yet Sam asserts that staying silent constitutes the true violation of the Honor Code; for only by speaking out could she, and can we, ensure that the racially marginalized communities at Caltech are not simply used for show, but that the reforms that are long overdue are finally implemented.

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