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Universities scrub names of racist leaders — students say it’s a first step

A white building with modern pillars, out of focus, behind a sign reading 'Woodrow Wilson School'.

Princeton University announced in June that it would rename its public-policy programme, to remove association with Woodrow Wilson. As president of the university in the early twentieth century, Wilson discouraged the enrolment of Black students.Credit: Dominick Reuter/Reuters

Nearly five years ago, the Black Justice League student group at Princeton University in New Jersey organized a sit-in at the office of the institution’s president to demand that Woodrow Wilson’s name be removed from its vaunted public-policy programme.

When he was president of Princeton from 1902 to 1910, Wilson discouraged the enrolment of Black students, and as president of the United States from 1913 to 1921, he supported segregating white and Black employees in the federal government. Although the 2015 sit-in didn’t convince Princeton’s trustees to wipe Wilson’s name, this year’s wave of demonstrations against racism prompted action. The protests, sparked when George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in May, are part of the Black Lives Matter movement, which calls for an end to police violence and systemic racism against Black people. In June, Princeton announced that it would rename the programme, as well as a residential college.

The university is not alone in rethinking its legacy. In June, the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles removed a former president’s name from a central campus building because he supported eugenics. In the same month, the University of Mons in Belgium removed a bust of Leopold II, the Belgian king who at the turn of the twentieth century led a brutal and bloody colonial campaign in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And in July, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York removed DNA scientist James Watson’s name from its biological-sciences graduate programme, citing his past racist comments.

The Black Lives Matter movement has spurred institutions worldwide to announce that they will change or review the names of campus buildings, programmes and memorials dedicated to scientists and other figures who had discriminatory beliefs. Many of these announcements followed years-long campaigns by students and faculty members who risked their careers to remake their institutions from within. “We got to a tipping point,” says Susan Reverby, a historian of medicine who studies equality and ethics in public health at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. “But we wouldn't have gotten to the tipping point if people hadn’t done all the work they've been doing for generations to try to fight this.”

Still, those who fought for the changes say that renaming buildings is only the first step towards improving diversity and inclusion in academia; they are advocating sustained efforts to transform university culture.

Delayed action

Like Princeton, many of the institutions that recently renamed buildings and memorials had earlier opportunities to do so and didn’t take them.

“It’s not that Princeton changed its mind, it’s that public opinion changed around them,” says Abyssinia Lissanu, a graduate student in public policy who is part of the Princeton Policy School Demands group, one of several that have been pressuring the administration to make the university more inclusive.

In February, University College London (UCL) committed to dropping the names of Francis Galton and Karl Pearson, celebrated statisticians who supported eugenics, from buildings and lecture halls on campus. “Then there was a long pause and nothing happened,” says Michael Sulu, a UCL biochemical engineer who campaigned for the removal of the names.

According to a university spokesperson, the COVID-19 pandemic delayed action. After George Floyd died and worldwide protests erupted, UCL announced on 19 June that three spaces would have Galton’s and Pearson’s names removed immediately. They now bear generic names such as Lecture Theatre 115. Sulu credits student groups at the university with keeping up the pressure to ensure change.

A brown building with a tall central tower, seen through trees against a bright blue sky.

Rufus Von KleinSmid’s name was removed from this building at the University of Southern California in June because the former USC president was a supporter of eugenics.Credit: Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times via Getty

Similarly, USC convened a task force last year to re-evaluate its campus buildings and memorials. At the top of the list was the Von KleinSmid Center, one of the university’s most prominent buildings. The centre, which houses the department of international relations, was named after past USC president Rufus Von KleinSmid, who was a member of the now-defunct Human Betterment Foundation, a eugenics organization in southern California that advocated the forced sterilization of people with disabilities. Students had been campaigning for the building to be renamed for years. On 10 June, the university abruptly removed letters spelling out Von KleinSmid’s name and a bust of the scientist from the building.

“It’s absolutely the right thing to do,” says Paula Cannon, a USC virologist who co-chairs the university committee tasked with recommending protocols for renaming spaces. “It would have sent a very wrong message to not do it.” The renaming was part of a raft of changes announced by USC president Carol Folt, including hiring a chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer and establishing community oversight of campus policing. The university also removed Von KleinSmid’s name, portrait and biography from an online gallery of past presidents; a spokesperson declined to comment on this matter.

The recent protests haven’t sparked swift change everywhere. In February, a student organization at Stanford University in California delivered a formal request asking the institution’s leaders to rename Jordan Hall, which houses its psychology department. The building is named after Stanford’s founding president, David Starr Jordan, a marine biologist and famous eugenicist. The psychology faculty delivered its own request with unanimous support for the move the following month. Stanford’s naming-review committee says it won’t deliver its recommendations until the beginning of the autumn term, although it announced last month that the evaluation was being expedited.

The facade of a building with arches, columns and statues, emblazoned with the name 'Jordan Hall'.

Stanford University is considering whether to scrub David Starr Jordan’s name from its psychology department. Jordan, the university’s founding president, was a famous eugenicist.Credit: ArchitecTour/Alamy

Similarly, Indiana University Bloomington (IUB) is still considering whether to change the name of its biology building, also named Jordan Hall after the marine biologist, who was president of the university before moving to Stanford. More than 70 faculty members signed a petition to rename the building in June. A committee convened by the institution’s president is charged with making recommendations on the name of the hall — as well as several other places on campus bearing Jordan’s name — by 1 September.

At both Stanford and IUB, faculty members were instrumental in driving action. This was the first time that the faculty had really coalesced around the issue at IUB, despite previous actions by students, says Irene Newton, a microbiologist at the university and one of the petition’s co-authors. As a faculty member, “you need to look at the power you have and try and make the change you can”, she says. “This is within my power as tenured faculty here in this building — one thing to try to make the environment more inclusive.”

Chris Jackson, a geoscientist at Imperial College London, agrees that faculty members should put their weight behind such efforts. “You have to kind of stand for something. For me, at least, as a professor at a fancy university, what are you going to use your platform for and your position for?” Jackson and a colleague threatened to resign if his department did not rename its annual undergraduate award, which was given in honour of Henry De la Beche, a nineteenth-century geologist whose family’s sugar plantation in Jamaica benefited from the labour of more than 200 enslaved people. The department finalized its decision to rename the award on 8 June, the same day that Jackson made his threat, although the action was not ready to be announced until 19 June. A university spokesperson says that the timing of the decision was coincidental and that the process to rename the award had been under way since 2019, with the goal of making the change before the medal was awarded this year.

Beyond renaming

For many, institutional renaming is only a first step towards universities examining their own racist legacies and becoming more inclusive. Campus groups are now ratcheting up the pressure to diversify faculty and student bodies and to improve support for Black academics. “To me, the treatment of the people in the institutions matters just as much as the name that’s on them,” Lissanu says.

At Princeton, senior administrators are due to submit reports to the president on ways the university can “identify, understand, and combat systemic racism” by 21 August, a spokesperson says.

Jackson agrees that more action is needed. The renamings at institutions are “very low-activation-energy things”, he says. “I’m happy they’ve done at least that.” But he says he’d like to see policy changes with “far more teeth”.

More transparency and accountability around how universities handle cases of racism would help to rebuild trust with Black academics, Jackson says. He also calls for universities to pay the students and faculty members who serve on diversity and equity committees. This sort of “invisible work” is important but isn’t often rewarded monetarily or factored into career-advancement decisions.

Renaming buildings will be just a gesture if it is not backed up by meaningful change elsewhere on campus, says Ben Maldonado, who founded the Stanford Eugenics History Project, the student group that petitioned the university to rename Jordan Hall. And, he adds, that gesture is long overdue. “It’s a thing you have to do but it’s not something that you should praise Stanford — or anyone else — for doing.” Maldonado hopes that the conversations sparked by renaming efforts will push universities to examine their legacies, cultures and climates critically and make substantial changes for the better.

Nature 584, 331-332 (2020)

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-020-02393-3

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