Schlissel recommends 'U' rename C.C. Little building, Winchell House after years of student protest

Monday, March 26, 2018 - 12:59pm

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File Photo/Daily

In a formal request to the University of Michigan’s Board of Regents Monday morning, University President Mark Schlissel called for the renaming of the C.C. Little Science Building after months of protests against the former University president’s history of eugenics research and involvement in the tobacco industry. The regents are set to vote Thursday on the recommendation.

“The University community makes a significant commitment to an individual or family when it names a space after a person and those who wish to change it carry a heavy burden,” Schlissel wrote in a communication released on the agenda for the upcoming Thursday meeting. “In this case, I believe that heavy burden has been met for the reasons articulated in the (advisory committee’s) recommendation.”

Review of the building’s association with Little by the President’s Advisory Committee on University History began after an official request from University faculty and students to the committee to change the building’s name was submitted to Schlissel last September.  

According to the request, the committee found Little’s research and advocacy on eugenics, coupled with his support for the tobacco industry, was not a history the University could support and memorialize, especially given the building’s connection to the field of science. The building currently houses the College of Pharmacy, among other departments. 

Associate history professor John Carson, who was a member of the group that originally requested the C.C. Little building’s name be removed, said he was enthused to hear of President Schlissel’s recommendation on Monday.

“I think it’s exciting. I was very excited to receive a letter today from the president’s office saying that he had come to a decision and was recommending to the regents that the name be changed,” Carson said. “There’s a long way to go, but all steps matter, and this seems to be an important step in reminding us that history is an ongoing thing, and that making the University welcoming and open to the community is going to be a constant struggle.”

Protests erupted around the C.C. Little building last semester in conjunction with a series of bias incidents attacking Black students on campus, as students, faculty and staff picketed multiple times to remove the name. LSA senior Anushka Sarkar, Central Student Government president, first officially brought the matter to the regents’ attention at their meeting last October. Ultimately, Schlissel agreed the name should be changed.   

“The committee emphasized that Little’s support and participation in these campaigns had serious negative consequences noting that ‘his 1920s campaign for eugenic measures while University President — immigration restriction, sterilization of the ‘unfit,’ anti-miscegenation laws — and the 1950s campaign sowing doubt about the links between smoking and cancer negatively affected the lives of millions,’” Schlissel’s statement read. 

LSA Associate Dean Angela Dillard, who was also involved in the initial effort to change the name of the building, said she felt this decision showed the positive change that can come from conversation and protest on campus.

“I thought it was a really important moment not only for the University itself, but to demonstrate the power of public history, the power of the humanities, to be able to help to shape debates and controversy, and then to help the University figure out how to do the right thing,” Dillard said. “It shows that it’s worth having conversation, debate, even protest, to get people to think carefully and critically about our history — what are we celebrating, what are we not celebrating, whose name is on a building, whose name isn’t on a building.”

Back in October, students shut down the transit center named after Little. LSA sophomore Nando Felten told The Daily the name was a point of contention for him and many other Black students. 

“How would it be if you were going to say, if you were Jewish, and you say, ‘I’m going to Adolf Hitler bus stop?’ That’s not cool,” Felten said. “For Black people, this is not cool because if our great grandparents had to deal with him, we wouldn’t be here right now.”

University student governments including CSG, LSA student government and Rackahm student government also vocalized their support for the remaining of the C.C. Little building, passing initiatives to show the student body’s support.

Until a new name can be established, the University Policy for Naming of Facilities, Spaces and Streets mandates “the building will be referred to by its street address, 1100 North University Avenue, or by a functional designation that will be determined by the Associate Vice President for Facilities and Operations.”

Schlissel also requested the West Quad Residence Hall’s Winchell House be renamed due to Alexander Winchell’s, a professor at the University in the late 1800s, racist academic studies at the University.

Winchell was a professor of engineering, physics and geology as well as a regent during his time at the University. While at the University, he published many academic pamphlets and papers that connected brain power to race and claimed white individuals were positioned to be the superior race.

Public Policy junior Kevin Sweitzer submitted the request in February 2017 and the committee approved the renaming unanimously last September. The committee primarily focused on Winchell’s novel “Preadamites; Or a Demonstration of the Existence of Men Before Adam,” which they found to be dangerous racist rhetoric and supportive of current white supremacist movements.

“(Preadamites) was unambiguously racist and ‘out of step with the University's own aspirations in those times as well,’” Schlissel’s response read. “According to the committee, portions of this book continue to be used today to support White supremacist views, thereby amplifying the negative contemporary effect of the Winchell naming, especially on ‘the actual building of communities’ that we should aspire to in our residential housing.”

Sweitzer said Winchell’s views were more racist than was socially acceptable for the time he was living in, and the fact that he was ever memorialized was due to a failure by the administration.

“The University simply failed to do its due diligence in the 1930s when they named Winchell House, and it should have never been named after him in the first place,” Sweitzer said. “But I’m glad that we’re able to hopefully, pending the vote on Thursday, correct the change.”

The residence house will also be given a temporary name by Henry Baier, associate vice president for Facilities and Operations, until a permanent name can be established.

Carson said he hoped this decision would launch a continued conversation about the way that buildings on campus are named, given that the names of buildings are rarely changed.

“This is not to wash away the history of the University, but to remind us that it is complicated and dynamic,” Carson said. “There aren’t that many new buildings, so having an ongoing process of thinking well, this building has been named after this person for 100 years, maybe, without denigrating them at all, maybe it’s time to think about renaming it after somebody else. Otherwise, a particular set of people in the past, mostly white males, will become the only people whose names are really on the buildings, rather than imagining a more diverse opportunity.”

However, in an interview with The Daily Monday afternoon, Schlissel said this process should not be expected for every building on campus. He said these two circumstances had large amounts of evidence for changing the name and not every building name will have similar results.

“This sort of thing will be exceptionally rare,” Schlissel said. “These might be the only two cases where we ever do this. It’s not clear. It depends what comes forward and the bar should be set very high. We don’t want the names of things to be changing as fashions change.”

LSA senior Josh Hasler, who was the only undergraduate member of the committee that requested the C.C. Little building name change, said he was interested to see what the name of the building will be changed to if the regents vote to change it. He cited an example from the University of Virginia, where a building named after a eugenicist was renamed Pinn Hall, to honor the only African American and the only woman to graduate from the university's medical school in 1967.

“This is the first step,” Hasler said. “All this proposal says is that we need to change the name. It doesn’t necessarily put forward who the building ought to be named after. I think it will be important to see when we rename the building if we really rename it with an eye towards social justice and making things right, or if it’s just going to be caught up in more University politics. That’s going to be really important to see how far this gesture will go and what it will really mean.”