The California Institute of Technology announced Friday it will rename buildings and other campus assets that had honored several backers of the discredited eugenics movement, including one of its early leaders.
The prestigious institute’s action is the latest in series of similar steps that have occurred in recent years as higher education institutions take stock of their role in the nation’s history of social and racial injustice. The reckoning accelerated last year after George Floyd, a Black man, was killed during an arrest in Minneapolis.
Last summer, critics urged Caltech to reexamine its ties in the early 20th century to eugenics and an organization known as the Human Betterment Foundation. The foundation espoused “race betterment by eugenic sterilization,” according to a report that a Caltech committee on naming and recognition issued in December.
Robert A. Millikan, who led Caltech from 1921 to 1945, joined the Human Betterment Foundation as a trustee in 1937, the report found. The committee also researched Millikan’s views on gender, race, and ethnicity, “finding them sexist, racist, xenophobic, and inexcusable by any standard,” Caltech said in a news release.
Caltech’s trustees decided to strip Millikan’s name from a library that is the tallest building on the campus in Pasadena.
Millikan was crucial in the rise of Caltech as a science powerhouse and was its first Nobel laureate. In 1923, he received the Nobel Prize in physics for his work “on the elementary charge of electricity and on the photoelectric effect.”
Caltech said it will also remove from its assets and honors the names of other prominent figures linked to eugenics advocacy: Harry Chandler, Ezra S. Gosney, William B. Munro, Henry M. Robinson and Albert B. Ruddock.
“The decision of the Board of Trustees is of seminal importance to Caltech’s future,” Caltech President Thomas F. Rosenbaum said in a statement. “Renaming buildings is a symbolic act, but one that has real consequences in creating a diverse and inclusive environment. It is an act that helps define who we are and who we strive to be.”
Millikan, as a force in forging the modern Caltech, echoed in some ways the importance of Woodrow Wilson to Princeton University. Wilson was the president of Princeton before he was elected U.S. president. His name was long prominent on the Ivy League campus. But last year Princeton stripped Wilson’s name from its school of public and international affairs after a reconsideration of his racist views and actions.
Of Millikan, Rosenbaum said: “It is fraught to judge individuals outside of their time, but it is clear from the documentation presented that Millikan lent his name and his prestige to a morally reprehensible eugenics movement that already had been discredited scientifically during his time.”