Nearly a thousand 5C students, faculty and alumni have signed a petition to remove physicist Robert A. Millikan’s name from Pomona College’s Millikan Laboratory, which houses the school’s physics, astronomy and mathematics departments.
The petition cites Millikan’s support for eugenics as a trustee of the Human Betterment Foundation, a California-based organization that promoted involuntary sterilization for those with “feeble-mindedness or mental illness.” From 1909 to 1929, the foundation studied 6,255 sterilizations permitted by a 1909 California law, alleging they resulted in “personal,” “social” and “eugenic” benefits.
“The results of this study informed legislation enacted by Nazi administrators that would ultimately lead to the forced sterilization of nearly 400,000 Germans,” the petition says. “The International Criminal Court defines forced sterilization to be a crime against humanity and all members of the Human Betterment Foundation, Robert Millikan included, were complicit in the perpetuation of these heinous acts.”
Millikan opposed the hiring of Dr. Hertha Sponer to a professorship at Duke University in 1936. In a letter to Duke’s president, Millikan wrote he would “get more for my expenditure if in introducing young blood into a department I picked one or two of the most outstanding younger men, rather than if I filled one of my openings with a woman.”
Claire Dickey PO ’14, a PhD student in astronomy at Yale, adapted the petition from one written by UCLA professor Michael Chwe calling for similar renamings at the California Institute of Technology, where Millikan served as chairman of the executive council for 24 years.
As a Pomona physics student, Dickey was part of the advisory board for Millikan Laboratory’s 2015 remodeling. Cognizant of Millikan’s sexist history, she was part of a push to rename the building then. It was unsuccessful, although it did result in the new lecture hall being named for Dr. Emmy Noether, a Jewish mathematician who made significant contributions to abstract algebra and who fled Nazi Germany in 1933.
“When we choose to honor Millikan, we tarnish by the same token the legacy of Emmy Noether,” Dickey said.
When Dickey learned of Millikan’s involvement in eugenics a few weeks ago, she got in touch with Pomona physics department chair Dwight Whitaker, who she said was also unaware of the history but supported the proposal and signed the petition.
In the days since it was introduced, the petition has received widespread support, including a social media endorsement from the ASPC. At least seven current physics and mathematics professors and dozens of other faculty members have signed on.
“I’m totally blown away and overwhelmed by it. It’s almost a full-time job keeping up with adding folks’ names to the document right now,” Dickey said. “I’m really thrilled to see just how many people from all years and all majors feel similarly and feel that Pomona deserves better than honoring this terrible legacy. We have signatories from the class of 1955 to the class of 2024.”
On Wednesday, Dickey shared the petition with President G. Gabrielle Starr, who she said promised a formal deliberation process to examine the history and consider a renaming.
Pomona did not provide a comment.
Millikan Laboratory was originally built in 1958. It was named for Robert Millikan at the request of Frank R. Seaver PO 1905, a Pomona trustee, petroleum executive and a close friend of Millikan. The Seaver estate has continually donated to Pomona, and R. Carlton Seaver, Frank Seaver’s grandnephew, is vice chair of the Pomona Board of Trustees.
Physics major Haidee Clauer PO ’22 said she sees the renaming push as the physics department’s latest step in creating “a more inclusive, more decolonized and more supportive space.”
“I hope renaming the building will formally reflect what our community values — not wealth, bigotry or power,” Clauer said in a message. “It’s been so exciting to see such a united front of students, alumni, faculty and even administrators all coming together, and I can’t wait for the newly renamed building to welcome us all back after quarantine.”
The scrutiny of Millikan’s past comes as other nearby institutions reconsider the figures their buildings honor.
In June, the University of Southern California removed the name of its fifth president, Rufus Von KleinSmid — also a noted eugenicist — from its Center for International and Public Affairs. Fullerton’s high school district removed the name of Louis Plummer, a former school superintendent with ties to the Ku Klux Klan, from its auditorium.
Dickey said the building’s nomenclature matters because rather than striving for notions of objectivity, scientific disciplines should seek proactively to better society.
“Being really intentional about how we shape the legacy and narrative of science is really important, just as important as not fudging the results of your data, because that’s what shapes the narrative going forward,” she said.
Some Pomona alumni, reacting to the petition, said they saw a renaming as “erasing history.” But Nathaniel Tran PO ’23, who helped spread the petition through 5C social media groups, argued Millikan’s legacy as an “indisputably significant scientist” doesn’t outweigh the effects of his actions.
“There are so countless other heroes — with much more direct ties to Pomona, as well as many diverse backgrounds and beliefs — who merit much more respect and recognition,” Tran said in a message.
The petition purposefully does not suggest an alternative name, Dickey said, so that current students and alumni can have an active conversation about the issue.
“Science is at its best when it uplifts and supports the people doing it and the community that it’s being done for,” she said. “That means being thoughtful about how we do our science but also whose legacies we celebrate. So who do we choose to name our laws of physics after? Who do we choose to honor on our buildings?”