OPINION: Pomona’s renaming of Millikan offers a new standard for ongoing nationwide controversy

An illustration of Pomona College's renamed Millikan Laboratory building.
(Yasmin Elqutami • The Student Life)

Pomona College’s decision to rename Millikan Laboratory — which President G. Gabrielle Starr attributed to its namesake’s advocacy of eugenics — may not significantly affect students at the moment, especially due to everyone being off campus. Indeed, were it not for present circumstances, it might have gone relatively unnoticed, just one of many similar controversies to occur on college campuses in recent years. 

However, in light of 2020’s ongoing racial justice protests and subsequent vituperative debates on how (or if) to commemorate individuals who shaped history but also espoused deeply prejudiced ideologies, Pomona’s renaming of Millikan Laboratory, the college’s physics building, might indicate a new standard for determining whether to remove a commemoration of an individual with irredeemably problematic views. Perhaps the question we should be asking is not whether a person’s achievements outweigh the responsibility to condemn some of their opinions, but rather what the purpose of their commemorative marker is in the particular public environment that it is situated in. In other words, it is a question of the person’s position in space, not time. 

The building formerly called Millikan Laboratory was initially named for renowned physicist Robert A. Millikan (1868 to 1953), a Nobel laureate best known for his 1909 oil drop experiment, which measured the charge of an electron. Millikan spent most of his career at Caltech and had no special connection to any of the Claremont Colleges.

Separate from his contributions to physics, and in line with much of the American population and intelligentsia in the early 20th century, Millikan was a noted supporter of eugenics — the pseudoscientific belief that some people are genetically predetermined to be more intelligent and capable than others, and that the continued reproduction of the genetically unfit poses a societal and economic threat to the population.

After the Supreme Court ruling in Buck v. Bell (1927), many states enacted laws allowing forced sterilization of a broad category of people loosely defined as “unfit”; California gained a particular reputation for vigorously applying its forced sterilization law. Eugenics combined with widespread racism meant that forced sterilization disproportionately impacted women of color, with litigation relating to involuntary tubal ligations of Hispanic women at Los Angeles hospitals continuing into the 1970s. As a trustee of the eugenicist “think tank” Human Betterment Foundation, Millikan ardently promoted these laws.

In light of this, Starr wrote in an Oct. 6 email that Millikan Laboratory would be renamed after the parents of Frank Seaver PO ’05 (that’s 1905, by the way), whose 1958 donation enabled the construction of Millikan and nearby Seaver North and Seaver South.

Starr suggested that the building — now officially the Mary Estella and Carlton Seaver Laboratory — be called Seaver East in everyday usage, or alternatively Estella after Frank Seaver’s mother (due to the name’s association with stars, since the building is devoted to physics and astronomy). 

Millikan never taught at the Claremont Colleges; he had no special connection to the environment that the building bearing his name was situated in. As Starr stated in her email, “it’s clear that the name was chosen at the time to represent excellence in the physical sciences.” In requesting the building be named Millikan, Frank Seaver just wanted to honor a famous physicist. The building could have been named Newton or Cavendish or Einstein and the effect would have been the same. Renaming the building after the Seaver family, then, makes the building more integrated into Pomona’s physical environment, as the building is now named after individuals to whom the college community can feel personally linked. 

When people fight over public monuments for controversial individuals, it is really the space they are fighting over, not the memory of that person. Removing a public memorial to someone doesn’t mean they are erased from history (we don’t put up statues of Hitler or Stalin, after all, and yet no one’s forgetting them); it means a community is saying that the person’s memory should not be lionized in this particular space. What the person did in life is already done; commemorating a historical individual in public says much more about the community that erected that marker than about the person being commemorated. 

One can see how this standard applies to the main flashpoints of this debate. In the case of statues of Confederate generals throughout the United States, the vast majority were not erected because the depicted person had any particular connection to the place where their statue is located. Most Confederate monuments were not put up in the aftermath of the Civil War, but rather during subsequent periods of heightened civil rights activism to intimidate those opposed to white supremacy: during Reconstruction, the consolidation of Jim Crow after Plessy v. Ferguson, and the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s. (Of course, even in instances where an individual might have had a connection to the place where his statue is, it should still be removed, as those who went to war against their own country so they could retain the ability to own slaves do not deserve any respect.)

This standard gets murkier when it comes to individuals whose memories can be considered relevant to any public place in the entire country — in particular, the Founding Fathers who owned slaves. The name and legacy of Thomas Jefferson is obviously inseparable from and integral to places like the Jefferson Memorial or Monticello, so it would not make sense to remove it from there. In other cases, where the legacy of the Founding Fathers has a purpose in a public place “only” by virtue of that place being in America, it is up to a community to decide exactly how they want to recognize that aspect of the country’s history and whether their recognition should include a public monument or not. 

Perhaps the only real guiding principle in such cases is to make sure that the darker aspects of Jefferson’s legacy, and how they might have shaped his actions, are included in our conception of who he was. This places the onus on historians and the public at large to ensure a more multifaceted memory of Jefferson, which, ultimately, is inherently a more complete and historically accurate picture. This demonstrates, for example, the importance of the long struggle to make Monticello acknowledge that Jefferson had four children with enslaved person Sally Hemings.

For someone who really did have a close connection to the place where they are being commemorated (like monuments to Millikan at Caltech), perhaps the only applicable standard for whether we should remember this person by memorializing them really is to ask if their accomplishments outweigh their personal prejudices. This further emphasizes the need to ensure that the real-world harms that their views resulted in or contributed to should be part of the broader public memory. However, in almost every case, the present controversy has concerned statues or other markers of people who had no relevant connection to the place where they are being commemorated.

For another example right here at Pomona, look no further than the name of Richard Wagner (along with Chopin, Beethoven, Bach and Schubert) on the facade of the college’s music hall Big Bridges. Wagner’s contributions to opera notwithstanding, his virulent anti-Semitism (including anti-Semitic tropes in several of his operas) and his ideological influence on Nazism as Hitler’s favorite composer are well-documented and inescapable. Like Millikan, and like the other composers commemorated alongside him, Wagner had no connection to Pomona; he died four years before the college’s founding. I see no reason why Wagner’s name cannot be replaced with literally any other historical composer, as the purpose of the names is simply to list several of the most important figures in music history.

Granted, no one considers the debate about public monuments the biggest problem facing the 5Cs or the country right now. But this debate has become a critical cultural flashpoint and is clearly not going away, so it is worth it to try to find an acceptable standard to objectively ascertain whether a monument should be kept.  

And if Pomona is ever looking for someone to name another science building after, I’d like to put forward Jennifer Doudna PO ’85, pioneer of CRISPR gene editing technology and corecipient of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Ben Reicher PO ’22 is from Agoura Hills, California. He joined his high school newspaper in ninth grade because he loved to argue, and hasn’t stopped since.

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