Caltech to Remove the Names of Robert A. Millikan and Five Other Eugenics Proponents from Buildings, Honors, and Assets
Caltech, January 15, 2021
Caltech president Thomas F. Rosenbaum, acting on unanimous recommendations from the Committee on Naming and Recognition (CNR) and the authorization of the Caltech Board of Trustees, today announced the removal of the name of Caltech’s founding president and first Nobel laureate, Robert A. Millikan, from campus buildings, assets, and honors. Rosenbaum and the Board also approved the removal of the names of Harry Chandler, Ezra S. Gosney, William B. Munro, Henry M. Robinson, and Albert B. Ruddock from campus assets and honors.
“The decision of the Board of Trustees is of seminal importance to Caltech’s future,” Rosenbaum said in a memo announcing the decision. “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.”
In taking this step, the Institute fully heeds the committee’s recommendation to reckon and reconcile with the past, “publicly and unambiguously repudiat[ing] any shade of affiliation with eugenics.” The decision is a direct response to and an acknowledgement of the named individuals’ participation in the eugenics movement through affiliation with the Human Betterment Foundation (HBF), a California-based organization founded in 1928 by Ezra Gosney, which supported eugenic sterilization research and distributed propaganda in support of eugenic sterilization. Caltech’s leadership concurred with the CNR that to continue to memorialize the named individuals, without a complete accounting of who they were, is inconsistent with Caltech’s values. Millikan, Gosney, Chandler, Munro, Robinson, and Ruddock were successful professionals, civic leaders, and philanthropists and also prominent members of society who lent their stature and names to the furtherance of racist and discriminatory practices either as HBF trustees or members.
In making its recommendations regarding Millikan, the committee also considered his stances on gender, race, and ethnicity, finding them sexist, racist, xenophobic, and inexcusable by any standard.
“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,” Rosenbaum said.
As a result of its research and deliberations, the CNR conclusively determined that the use of these individuals’ names does not appropriately reflect the values the Institute holds today.
“It is not enough to be an outstanding scientist or engineer, or a successful entrepreneur or professional. Individuals to be memorialized must also possess personal attributes and behavior that align fully with Caltech’s mission, its values, its Honor Code, and its aspirations,” the committee’s report states.
While the committee had also been charged with considering campus memorializations of Thomas J. Watson Sr. for his alleged ties to Nazi Germany through his leadership of IBM, it ultimately withheld judgment on this renaming. An archival investigation into these matters “undermines the essential accusations in Edwin Black’s IBM and the Holocaust, thereby removing any firm basis to recommend renaming the Watson Laboratories of Applied Physics,” Rosenbaum said.