Panel discusses implications of C.C. Little building’s eponym
Months after the University of Michigan’s release of a new policy on building renaming, the LSA History Department convened a bicentennial panel Tuesday afternoon on the potential renaming of the C.C. Little Building, which has been named after former University of Michigan President Clarence Cook “C.C.” Little since 1968. About 50 people attended the discussion on the many factors involved with the process of name-changing and examples of other universities’ actions in similar cases.
Though he was a renowned genetics, cancer and tobacco researcher, Little has recently come under fire for his support of policies such as compulsory sterilization of the “unfit” and immigration restriction. American Culture Prof. Alexandra Minna Stern opened the panel by reflecting on the nuances of building names.
“We’re going to think about the arguments for removing his name and what are some of the arguments for retaining his name,” she said. “There is a high bar for renaming. If we just take his name off the building, we erase the past.”
Panelists referenced the notion that Little’s associations with ideas and practices are antagonistic to the values of diversity, inclusion and nondiscrimination the University is pushing toward today.
Stern said one line of reasoning for preserving Little’s name is that the name causes little harm, as not many students know who he was or what he did.
LSA junior Joshua Hasler countered those reasons by arguing Little’s interests in eugenics cannot be separated from his tenure as University president. He found it hard to believe Little became president of the American Eugenics Society after leaving the University in 1929.
“Like many students here at the University, I’ve had a class in the C.C. Little building,” Hasler said. After discovering Little’s link to eugenics, he said, he was shocked. “Obviously, this isn’t a fact the University likes to publicize.”
Following the recent pop-up Stumbling Blocks installations on campus, Hasler said he was surprised not to see anything addressing Little during the bicentennial exhibit.
“We didn’t see anything at the C.C. Little building,” Hasler said. “Even when students do hear about C.C. Little’s eugenics past, I feel that sometimes we fail to grasp the gravity of it. Every University does have a building like this, but that doesn’t mean we should keep these buildings. A mainstream thought nearly a century ago doesn’t reflect the values that we hold at this University today.”
Hasler said he thinks that as president, Little might have been able to distribute information on eugenics to students as mainstream science. The University, he said, should work to remove references to him from campus.
“As we think about, as students and faculty members, how we relate to this building, we need to ask ourselves: Regardless of the faculty who reside in this building, is C.C. Little a president whose legacy — specifically relating to what he did for the University of Michigan during his tenure — is something that we want to institutionalize?” Hasler said.
History Prof. Martin S. Pernick spoke in defense of Little’s views, as well as his role as a leading researcher of the time.
“Many of his views were widely shared by other scientists,” he said. “He was a leader in a vast number of important national and international organizations, and he had a flare for publicity for language and promotion that helped shape public attention.”
Despite this, Pernick said many of his studies were intended to create doubt, saying out-of-the-box things such as smoking and climate change were both "harmless."
“Little focused on genetics,” Pernick said. “He seemed to revise his views to fit the tobacco industry’s views.”
Pernick stressed a building renaming cannot simply erase Little’s legacy.
“The point is that removing his name from a building, whether we do it or not, should not result in erasing him from memory or forgetting the important but complex things we can learn from understanding the connections among his multiple activities,” he said.
History Prof. Matthew Countryman placed building renamings in a historical context, citing the significance of Yale University renaming John C. Calhoun College to the Grace Murray Hopper College instead.
“Naming itself is a political act or an institutional act that should be examined and evaluated like any other historical event,” Countryman said. “What does the act of naming reveal about the political, social and cultural terrain in which it occurred?”
Countryman supported a balance in assessing the accomplishments of the figures in question before deciding whether to keep their names.
“Weighing of the fullness of the historical figure’s acts seems to be a more appropriate way,” Countryman said.
Prof. Kumea Shorter-Gooden, visiting from the University of Maryland, spoke about renaming the football stadium on her campus after student protests in 2015. The stadium was originally named after former Maryland President Curley Byrd, who, despite bringing the university to national prominence, espoused racist views and actively prevented Black students from attending the school.
“The symbolic act of removing President Byrd’s name would continue the university’s work to make the campus a more diverse, inclusive, fair, just and welcoming place,” Shorter-Gooden said. “For many African-American citizens of the state of Maryland, alumni, faculty, staff and students of the University, Byrd’s name is associated with a history of exclusion and discrimination. Maintaining the name contributes to a hostile and unwelcoming climate.”
Shorter-Gooden also addressed some of the arguments against removing his name, such as disregarding Byrd’s positive contributions to the university, not focusing on actual policy to create a more inclusive environment and setting a precedent to reconsider everything on campus with an eponym.
“The university risks losing alumni, donors and political support,” Shorter-Gooden said. “But since President Byrd’s time, the university has been transformed from a segregated university into one of the most diverse universities in the nation. I myself was delighted that the name was changed.”
Overall, Shorter-Gooden said, allowing Black students into universities is important, but making sure those students feel welcomed once they arrive is even more crucial. By changing the name of the C.C. Little Building, she thinks the University can make progress on that front.
“To name a building after Little, without any contending around his eugenicist past at the same moment that you’re opening up doors just tells us how this issue, how the whole agenda of diversity, was in its infancy and how much we have evolved,” Shorter-Gooden said. “We still have a ways to go.”