You might have thought you had the full campus tour, but you’d never hear about these shameful events in University history from a tour guide. McCarthyism, eugenics and military research — the University’s hands are anything but clean.
A pioneer in eugenics (University Hospital)
One of the University’s darkest secrets is reserved for one of science’s darkest movements: the eugenics movement. Stemming from Darwinist ideals of becoming better with evolution, the eugenics movement of the mid-20th century made it its mission to keep the sick, disabled, mentally ill or anyone else deemed inferior at the time (mostly minorities and criminals) from reproducing.
The University was a major champion of the cause. The University Hospital performed a large portion of the roughly 3,800 sterilizations estimated to have been performed in Michigan. Victor Vaughan, a former Medical School dean and namesake of the School of Public Health’s building, was one of the main advocates of Michigan’s forced sterilization law. And former University President Clarence Cook Little, another outspoken eugenics supporter, led the American Eugenics Society after resigning from the University presidency in 1929.
The Union Tower occupation (Michigan Union)
A controversial honor society with a racist past, an activist group willing to go to extremes to make a point and a campus heated with racial tensions due to the affirmative action debate — the showdown on the seventh floor of the Michigan Union in 2000 had all the makings of a prolonged drama.
And that’s exactly what it was. For 37 days, the Students of Color Coalition occupied the seventh floor of the Union to protest the sometimes-secret senior honor society Michigamua, once known for rituals mocking Native Americans. To embarrass the group and portray it as still culturally insensitive, the SCC gave guided tours of the room, which was painted like a Native American wigwam, and showed off a collection of Native American artifacts found in the room. The honor society countered that it didn’t even know about the artifacts, which it said were stored in an attic and never used.
Despite pleas for a resolution from then-University President Lee Bollinger and several other University officials, the conflict continued until Michagamua abandoned its rights to the space and released the artifacts.
Six years later, Michigamua abandoned its infamous name, renaming itself Order of Angell a year later in an effort to move past a controversial history that included the 2000 occupation.
Fueling the war machine (West Hall)
Once home to the College of Engineering, West Hall was also the focal point of the University’s much-maligned foray into military research.
A major recipient of Defense Department funding during World War II, the University provided a lot of the intellectual heft behind the nation’s expanding war machine. Like the war, that was a celebrated partnership.
By the 1960s, the University had moved its war research from West Hall to a facility in Ypsilanti, but the classified military research continued. In 1969, for example, almost 43 percent of the University’s research spending went to defense projects. Almost as significant, the University was a hotbed for the expanding the military-related industry’s recruiting efforts.
Dow Chemical — a long-time, high-profile donor to the University and manufacturer of napalm — recruited most of its best talent from the University.
The relationships with both the Defense Department (which was run during much of the war by Ann Arborite Robert McNamara) and private industry left the University with blood on its hands during the unpopular Vietnam War. It also led to a recommendation by the University’s Research Policies Committee to ban classified research on campus and disavow any projects that would lead to human destruction.
A regent’s suicide (Bell Tower)
Arguably the architectural centerpiece of the University, Burton Memorial Tower carries a stain of infamy much darker than its pristine, whitewashed walls.
On March 24, 1987, University Regent Sarah Goddard Powers leapt to her death from a window on the tower’s eighth floor. The Ann Arbor Police Department immediately classified her death as a suicide, as did the University the following day.
Though the death sent shock waves across Ann Arbor, it sank almost immediately from campus consciousness: the AAPD stopped investigating the matter after only a few days, and the story faded from the pages of the Daily just as quickly. No suicide note was every found, and to this day, Powers’s motive remains a mystery.
School business returned to normal after Powers’s husband Phil was appointed to take her regent seat, but Sarah Goddard Powers’s suicide has endured as one of the University’s great public secrets.
Red Scare firings (Fleming Building)
As Cold War hysteria swept the nation in the early 1950s, professors, entertainers and anyone else suspected to be mildly leftist was dragged before the infamous House of Un-American Activities Committee. The University didn’t escape the scrutiny.
Three University professors, Chandler Davis, Clement Markert and Mark Nickerson, were called before the committee for offenses raging from thinking about leftist ideas to possibly being in socialist organizations at some point in their lives. All three refused to go.
The University responded by firing them. Markert managed to get his job back after a fight, but Nickerson, who was a tenured professor, and Davis didn’t.
The fact that the University hung its faculty out to dry was but one of many poor choices the University made during the Red Scare. But this one it gets to remember every year during the Davis, Markert and Nickerson Lecture on Academic and Intellectual Freedom sponsored by the faculty’s governing body.
The dean of women’s reign (Student Activities Building)
Keeping tabs on their female students was a major function of colleges in the mid-20th century. The University of Michigan was no exception. It stood out, though, by holding on to the practice a little longer and with a much greater intensity than most.
As late as the 1960s, after many schools had abolished dress codes, curfews and dating restrictions for female students, the University’s then-Dean of Women Deborah Bacon continued to justify them under the principle of in loco parentis — a theory that universities take on the moral responsibilities of a parent for their students. And the restrictions on female students continued. With a network of residence hall spies, Bacon kept records on female students’ behavior so she could inform parents about such things as interracial dating and even pass on information to authorities like the FBI.
In 1961 the Dean of Women came tumbling down. Citing her disconnect from the changing times, Bacon stepped down and her position dissolved behind her.
But as quoted by the Daily in 1959, she left female students with a lasting lesson: “If a woman is so stupid she is unaware of marriage as one of the goals of a female student, she is probably not smart enough to be admitted to our freshman class.”