Looking in the Mirror: The Push to Change History on Campus
In an opening scene of “The Dangerous Experiment,” a play that premiered last month, James Burrill Angell, then-University of Michigan president, stands before the Board of Regents at a late 1870s meeting to fight for women’s right to admission to the University.
As a contribution to the ongoing bicentennial celebration, the play — written by LSA junior Emma McGlashen — depicts a time in University history when forward-thinking campus leaders faced resistance from the institutional norms of the day. Portrayed as a fatherly figure, Angell challenges his traditionalist opponents in favor of a woman’s right to enroll at the University.
“What struck me most strongly, doing research, was the humanity in the history,” the play’s program quotes McGlashen as saying. “Social movements of the time inspired some and threatened others. The students were barely adults, and the adults were just doing the best with the world they lived in, and that’s the most quintessentially human thing.”
However, there is more to Angell’s history than can be conveyed on a stage. Today, Angell is known as the namesake of Angell Hall and the oldest senior honor society at the University. The beloved Michigan Union was dedicated to him. Few, however, associate him with negotiating an exclusionary immigration policy viewed darkly in U.S. history.
Following his tenure as University president, Angell played a key role in drafting the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 while serving as U.S. minister to China. Renamed “The Angell Treaty,” it became the first comprehensive law limiting immigration to the United States. The treaty led to a decade-long moratorium on Chinese laborers and restricted those who had already migrated in response to racial prejudice and anger over wage competition on the West Coast. Chinese immigration would be effectively banned until 1943.
Campuses across the nation have been roiled by the question of changing history, or the desire to reconcile modern morality with the darker points of an academic institution’s history.
At Yale University, students staged a sit-in at Calhoun College in protest of the school’s namesake, alum John C. Calhoun the seventh vice president of the U.S., who championed slavery as a “positive good.” Earlier this month, Yale administrators agreed to rename the college after Grace Hopper, a Yale alum, computer science pioneer and Navy admiral.
In late 2015, Princeton University students challenged the name of the university’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Though Wilson — who served as president of both Princeton and later the United States — was a champion of national self-determination and democracy abroad, his administration pursued domestic segregationist policies far more aggressive than those of his predecessors. In spite of the president’s controversial policies, Princeton’s board of trustees declined to rename the school in April 2016.
Debates surrounding the renaming of University buildings raise an uneasy question: How can the dark episodes of American history be reconciled with the country’s current values?
Former LSA Dean Terrence McDonald, a professor of history and director of the Bentley Historical Library, currently serves as chairman of the President’s Advisory Committee on University History, which was commissioned by University President Mark Schlissel in the spring of 2016 to draft guidelines for renaming University buildings.
The committee released a memo in January outlining eight principles for consideration upon renaming a University building, including pedagogy, interpretation, historical and institutional context, contemporary effect and a proposed process for implementation. There are, however, no binding rules for future buildings, and any name change must receive approval from the board.
“Our document is not a policy on naming,” McDonald said. “If a historical question is raised about an existing name, that’s when we come into play. None of the principles will determine (what names are chosen), but taken together they will offer perspectives.”
McDonald said the timing of the memo is explained by the coming of age, not only of the University, but of academic institutions across the nation.
“It's really incredible how much we’re starting to learn about the University,” McDonald said. “These issues of … naming buildings have been in the air at other campuses at well. Their own anniversaries have created this pushback to history. Georgetown was financially saved by the sale of slaves. How do you deal with it?”
Hindsight has not favored Clarence Cook Little, a biologist who was president of the University from 1925 to 1929. Born to an “old Boston family” that traces its lineage to Paul Revere, Little progressed to Harvard University, where he studied genetics and cancer.
After serving as an officer in World War I, Little jumped between various academic positions, serving as president of the University of Maine from 1922 to 1925 before he was appointed president of the University.
Serving as University president from 1925 to 1929, Little’s name has been attached to the C.C. Little Science Building on Central Campus since 1968. In recent years, however, students have questioned whether his name contradicts the University’s values.
During his brief tenure, Little did relatively little. He banned alcohol in fraternity houses, tried to limit the use of automobiles in some areas of campus and expanded research resources available to faculty. Little resigned after four years — hurt by a recent divorce and facing opposition from segments of the faculty — and dedicated the remainder of his career to research, becoming managing director of the American Cancer Society in 1929.
However, Little was also a firm believer in eugenics, a now-discredited pseudo-science that sought to improve the human race through selective breeding, maintaining that certain genes were defective and should be kept from reproducing.
In Europe, Nazi leaders used eugenics to justify violent and discriminatory policies against Jews and other populations they deemed “inferior,” such as homosexuals, disabled people and Romani.
Little was a president of the American Eugenics Society, an organization that spearheaded the promotion of eugenics education nationwide. He also supported eugenic sterilization, maintaining that those who were deemed “unfit” for breeding should be sterilized. In accordance with the sterilization laws enacted by the state, the University’s hospital performed forced sterilizations until the mid-20th century.
Little’s beliefs were not unique to the time, nor was he alone at the University. Eugenics was widely accepted across the medical profession and Victor Vaughan, the first dean of the University’s Medical School, held similar views. The Victor Vaughan building is also located on Central Campus, serving as a hospital administration building located on Catherine Street.
Because of his belief in eugenics, Little supported birth control — an unusual position at the time — as a means to prevent what he considered unworthy pregnancies.
Along with John Harvey Kellogg, popularly known as the cereal magnate and less popularly known for his questionable politics and support for eugenics, Little helped organize the third Race Betterment Conference in 1928, at which people shared what would now be considered discriminatory, exclusionary and racist ideas.
“It’s the easiest thing in the world to judge people by our contemporary standards,” McDonald said. “What we know and stand for and what people in the time knew and stood for. And we need to understand that. And historians wrestle with that all the time, but that’s the complicated thing. How do we have sufficient knowledge, and empathy, and how can we stand back and judge what they did?”
A panel discussion, titled “The Power of Place-Naming: C.C. Little, Eugenics, and the University of Michigan,” will be held in April to debate the merits of the continued use of Little’s name on campus buildings. American Culture Prof. Alexandra Stern, author of “Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America” is organizing the panel.
Stern said her bicentennial event will explore the implications of the University’s history as it pertains to Little. She said while there were many connections between the eugenics movement in the early 20th century and the University, the same could be said for prominent universities across the country.
“But what is interesting and what prompts us to use the bicentennial as a period of reflection,” Stern said. “He was only president for four years — he appears to have left due to some pressure because of his controversial ideas and some of his discriminatory belief.”
The panel discussion, which Stern hopes will consist of three to four faculty members, will create the forum for a conversation about the process of naming, and talk through it as part of a deliberative process.
“I’m not coming to the event with my decision already made about what should happen to the building,” Stern said. “Should the building be renamed? Who was C.C. Little? What does it mean that thousands of undergraduates everyday are going into this building named after a person with those beliefs? Do we erase history if we take a name off the building, and if we do, do we sanitize the past to make it cleaner and neater for ourselves?”
Stern said that though it was planned before the memo’s release, her event coincides in the spirit of those guidelines.
Overall, Stern said, she believes the naming process at the University should not be lightly undertaken. In the context of history, she said, figures praised in their time, like C.C. Little, may not remain so pleasant when viewed through the lens of their contemporaries.
“I think the real question is: Does the C.C. Little name and does his history, does it rise to the level of needed to be renamed by the University?” Stern said. “The fact is it is getting close to that threshold, because it keeps coming up.”
Further complicating the question of the naming of University buildings is the influence of donors. Contrary to what most believe, Jim Harbaugh’s job title isn’t the head coach of the Michigan football team. Instead, he is officially the J. Ira and Nicki Harris family head football coach. Because of a $10 million donation to the Athletics Department, all those who hold the position will also bear the Harris family name.
Those who donate to the University decide what happens to their funds, which has occasionally been a point of contention with the University community. When the renaming guidelines were released in January, members of the campus community rehashed some recent naming grievances, including the controversy surrounding the changing of Dennison Hall to Weiser Hall in 2014. The change was enacted when Ron Weiser — a sitting University regent — made a $50 million donation to the school.
McDonald highlighted pedagogy as the most essential of the guidelines for renaming buildings. For him, every naming opportunity can be a teaching opportunity, even in cases of financial endowments.
“Acknowledging a perfectly generous gift to the University, that’s an excellent thing to teach about,” McDonald said. “When someone makes a donation, it’s not inappropriate to put their names on it. We’re teaching about generosity, and giving back and commitment to this University. It can be a good example of pedagogy.”
Weiser was not the only donor to face pushback for attempting to rename a building after himself. Last semester, Regent Mark Bernstein (D) and his wife, Rachel Bendit, donated $3 million to the construction of a new hall to house the Trotter Multicultural Center. They planned for the new building to be named the Bernstein-Bendit Hall, which would house the Trotter Multicultural Center. Amid criticism by students and members of the campus community that changing the name of the building housing the center would erase William Monroe Trotter’s legacy, Bernstein and his wife removed their naming gift from the Trotter project and are currently in the process of re-allocating their $3 million dollar pledge, according to University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald.
Trotter was a civil rights activist and co-founder of the NAACP in 1909. The Trotter Center is the only building on campus named after an African American.
These episodes raise the question of whether the name of a historical figure can be replaced by a large donor in the future.
“When the University makes a commitment to a name, it's a very serious commitment,” McDonald said. “We have to understand this is the commitment the University’s made. There is a heavy burden of proof to change a name.”
Tappan Hall, named after Henry Philip Tappan, the first University president, houses the Fine Arts Library. The building was named after him in the 1890s, 40 years after his 11-year term.
“It would be hard to find a critic for President Tappan ... (even though he) was vehemently opposed to the admission of women,” McDonald said. “What do you do about this? He was a visionary leader, except for one thing. Nobody’s perfect, no context is complete.”
As the University looks beyond the bicentennial, these naming debates will continue. Though these are not questions with easy answers, context as well as understanding are crucial tools moving forward.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated Regent Mark Bernstein (D) and his wife, Rachel Bendit, withdrew their $3 million dollar donation to the University following criticism that naming the hall housing the Trotter Multicultural Center the Bernstein-Bendit Hall would erase the legacy of civil rights activist William Monroe Trotter, the only African American person a University building is named after. Bernstein and Bendit withdrew their donation from the Trotter center reconstruction project and are in the process of re-allocating these funds to the University.