Indiana University president Michael McRobbie is set to recommend the renaming of several university landmarks currently named after David Starr Jordan, the institution’s seventh president.
Jordan was a storied academic. Before he died in 1931, he was known as a premier ichthyologist (scientist who studies fish), and his efforts led to the naming of 2,500 species of fish. After his term at IU (1884-1891), he was the first president of Stanford University.
The landmarks are being renamed because in addition to those accomplishments, Jordan was also an avowed eugenicist.
“Many, if not most, of his written works were about eugenics or contained segments on eugenics and race science,” asserts a report from the student-led Eugenics at Stanford History Project. “His research on eugenics is likely second only to his founding of Stanford University in terms of their influence on the world.”
Jordan was not quiet about his beliefs and was involved in prominent American eugenics organizations, including the Human Betterment Foundation.
This information is not new, but it has been receiving increased attention in recent years, especially this summer after the killing of George Floyd. In February 2019, the history project submitted a request to Stanford to rename Jordan Hall, which houses the department of psychology. In July of this year, the Sierra Club published a reflection on the racist and exclusionary history of the organization, including associations with Jordan.
For IU, July was also when McRobbie charged a committee to evaluate commemorations of Jordan around campus, in response to requests from students and faculty. A report from that committee was released Sept. 2.
“While Jordan was once most known as a leading ichthyologist and innovative president, his public persona is now almost entirely tied to the significant role he played in the U.S. eugenics movement,” report authors wrote. “Keeping Jordan’s name as an honorific would lead some to mistakenly question the university’s unequivocal commitment to antiracism.”
Eugenics in the United States led to thousands of forced sterilizations and bore serious parallels with the ideology that underlay Nazi racial hygiene laws, the committee wrote.
On IU’s campus, a biology building, a parking garage and a river all bear Jordan’s name. Those landmarks are set to be renamed without honorifics, though commemorative names may be proposed in the future. The biology department at IU, faculty who work in a building bearing Jordan’s name, particularly desired a name change, according to the IU report.
Jordan Avenue, also named for David Starr Jordan, runs through the campus but is owned partially by IU and partially by the city of Bloomington. McRobbie intends the University Naming Committee to work with the city to find a new name for the street.
Stanford University said in April it would review two requests from the Eugenics at Stanford History Project and department of psychology to rename Jordan Hall. In July, the timeline for that review was expedited, with a committee charged with delivering recommendations before the fall term. On Sept. 14, the committee announced it had submitted its report to the president. The president will take approved recommendations to the Board of Trustees for approval.
Though the renaming at IU was in response to requests from campus, not everybody is happy with McRobbie’s plan. Steve Sanders, a law professor at IU, took to Medium on Thursday to propose his own solution.
“I believe an appropriately nuanced solution would have been to remove Jordan’s name from the biology building, because his advocacy of eugenics is today incompatible, to say the least, with sound science, but to keep it on the river as a tribute to the undisputed significance of Jordan’s leadership as an IU president,” Sanders wrote. “Yet that sort of nuance and acknowledgement of complexity cannot co-exist with the demands of wokeness and political correctness.”
Sanders drew attention to a speech McRobbie gave in 2015 praising Jordan as an “eminent educator, philosopher and scientist.” That speech was removed from the IU website but then restored.
The committee report from IU did grapple with the positive aspects of Jordan’s legacy but concluded that that history could be remembered and studied without honorifics and celebration.
“Recognizing the complexity of historical figures and open-mindedly examining the impact, positive and negative, of their contributions is crucial at a university committed to seeking knowledge and truth,” committee members wrote. “The University should not ignore his time as a president or professor or as president. Jordan made meaningful positive contributions to the field of ichthyology, to Indiana University and to higher education. In some ways his tenure as president was transformative. The university should remember that history. So too is it important not to forget his involvement with the U.S. eugenics movement.”
“The university should save, study, and share that history as well,” they added.