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After admitting founder’s eugenics past, Caltech honors a diversity of campus figures

A sign identifies the California Institute of Technology campus
The Caltech campus.
(Bauer-Griffin / Getty Images)

The first U.S. Secretary of Education. A 1995 Nobel Prize winner. The first Black student to graduate from Caltech. An educator who spent years trying to diversify the university’s student population.

Their stories may not have been well-known at Caltech. But soon, the names and legacies of Shirley Mount Hufstedler, Edward B. Lewis, Grant Delbert Venerable and Lee F. Browne will be honored campuswide after the private research university announced the renaming of professorships and buildings following petitions and calls from students and alumni to strip the names of eugenicists from campus.

The renaming effort at the university came after a tumultuous year in which students and alumni, catalyzed by the Black Lives Matter movement following the murder of George Floyd, demanded that the school remove the name of founding president Robert A. Millikan for his support of eugenics.

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Other universities, including USC, UC Berkeley and the UC Hastings College of the Law, have seen similar movements to acknowledge the past legacies of founders and notable campus figures.

Caltech president Thomas F. Rosenbaum said in a statement that the renaming process involved “an intense and thorough examination of Caltech’s history and our aspirations for the future.”

“There were heartfelt differences of opinion,” Rosenbaum said in an emailed statement, “but in the end the Caltech community came together to construct an inclusive path forward true to our values.”

As a result, the formerly known Robert A. Millikan Memorial Library has been renamed Caltech Hall, the most prominent campus building, to signal “Caltech’s aspiration to be an inclusive community.”

After students and alumni circulated petitions, the university responded by forming a committee charged with reviewing the legacies of the men whose names appeared on campus and make recommendations. Millikan contributed greatly to the science community; he won a Nobel Prize for his research on the electron and built Caltech into a leading research institute while serving as president for 24 years. But the renaming committee found a “disquieting picture” of Millikan’s view on gender, race and ethnicity. Under his tenure, no women were ever hired onto the school’s faculty, and Millikan once wrote that granting Black people the right to vote was “an unthinkable disaster.”

In announcing that his name would be removed last January, Rosenbaum said “Millikan lent his name and his prestige to a morally reprehensible eugenics movement that already had been discredited scientifically during his time.” That discredited ideology sought to use science to improve the human race by promoting traits deemed superior and breeding out those judged undesirable.

Sarah Sam, a student who co-authored one of the petitions as president of the Black Scientists and Engineers of Caltech, said she was thrilled that the university had finally taken the steps to finalize the renaming.

Additional changes have taken place since students launched a petition outlining other demands to create an inclusive campus. Caltech professors and staff members have taken it upon themselves to meet some of the goals outlined by the student group, Sam said, including increasing funds for a fellowship for incoming students of color and establishing an orientation program for incoming graduate students of color.

“I never thought I as a student would be able to have such a huge impact on the culture,” Sam said.

The university has also increased outreach efforts into underrepresented groups and launched a campus climate survey to receive feedback from students.

The other figures whose named have been removed from buildings and professorship titles include E.S. Gosney, the founder of the Human Betterment Foundation, a Pasadena-based eugenics group; Harry Chandler, a former Los Angeles Times publisher; William B. Munro, Henry M. Robinson, and Albert B. Ruddock, all of whom were affiliated with the Human Betterment Foundation.

The Lee F. Browne Dining Hall has been renamed to remove Chandler. Browne served as Caltech’s director of secondary school relations in the 1970s, and for two decades, developed outreach programs to encourage students from underrepresented backgrounds to pursue a science career path.

The website for the Ruddock House, a dormitory where residents were known as “the Rudds,” has already been updated to its new title, the Venerable House, named after Grant D. Venerable, the first Black student to graduate from Caltech. In documents, Millikan went to the board of trustees to question whether Venerable should be allowed to live on campus. (Millikan did end up offering Venerable student housing.)

Two professorships have been renamed the Judge Shirley Hufstedler Professorship and the Edward B. Lewis Professorships of Biology to remove references to Millikan and Ruddock. Hufstedler served as a trustee for 39 years and helped the university increase outreach to women while advising on issues including childcare, women’s issues and public policy. Lewis, who graduated in 1942 and later joined the faculty, and won a Nobel prize for his research on how genes regulate development in the body.

The process in selecting new names was led by community outreach and committee deliberations, Shayna Chabner-McKinney, the university chief communications officer, said in an email.

Previously, Caltech also benefited from the Human Betterment Foundation when the founder died and transferred assets to the university. According to the committee report, during the transfer process, Caltech housed the foundation in a small office on campus. It used the funds from the transaction to offer postdoctoral fellowships, the Gosney Fellowship, which the university last awarded in June 2020.

Michael Chwe, a Caltech alumnus and UCLA political science professor, said he felt he university has not fully acknowledged its ties to the eugenics foundation and was slow to discuss the complex legacies of people like Millikan, who were celebrated for their scientific merit, while others like Venerable were not talked about.

“If we’re not clear about our own history, then every other person who we aren’t clear to gets implicated,” Chwe said. “[The renaming is] a great step, but one small step in making Caltech a welcoming place for everyone.”


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