Biology faculty wants university to remove name of eugenics proponent

BLOOMINGTON — Members of the biology department have sent a letter to Indiana University administrators calling for Jordan Hall to be renamed. The university’s naming committee discussed the letter at a meeting Friday, but there is no timeline for a decision.

“The meeting today was the first step,” IU spokesman Chuck Carney said on Friday. “There’s nothing I can really speak to as far as timeline until they have met and start moving toward whatever action they are taking.”

The IU Bloomington biology department is largely housed in Jordan Hall. The building is named after David Starr Jordan, the university’s president from 1884 to 1891. Jordan was a well regarded scientist during his career, but he is controversial because of his advocacy of eugenics, the practice of selectively breeding humans.

Eugenics often involved forced sterilization. Those deemed unfit to breed by eugenicists typically had some type of physical or intellectual disability. Jordan’s take on eugenics included preservation of the Anglo-Saxon/Nordic race.

Jordan was not unique in his advocacy for eugenics among his contemporaries. But the biology department letter argues he took things further than most.

“His eugenic advocacy led to the legalization of forced sterilization in many states, among them Indiana — the first state to adopt such laws, in 1907,” according to the letter.

Jordan chaired the eugenics section of the American Breeders Association. He was also a member of the California Human Betterment Foundation. The eugenics organization was founded in 1928 in Pasadena, California. Jordan left IU to become president of Stanford University, a post he held from 1891 to 1913. He died in 1931.

It appears IU leaders are open to the idea of renaming Jordan Hall. IU President Michael McRobbie singled out Jordan during a virtual board of trustees meeting June 12 when announcing plans for a review of all named buildings on IU campuses. McRobbie warned the review would be a complex task that will take time.

“We should not delude ourselves that this process can be carried out quickly or easily,” he said.

Gregory Demas, chairman of the biology department, said the 76 people who signed the letter wanted to express that renaming Jordan Hall should be a priority.

“It’s just clear from talking to students and faculty in our building that it really bothers them to come into our building each day,” he said.

Demas first became aware of Jordan’s ties to eugenics in 2017 when pamphlets about it were distributed in the building. Prior to that, he never gave the name much thought.

“I knew he was a fish biologist, and I assumed the building was named for his presidency,” Demas said. “In talking to colleagues, I think people just didn’t know the history of his writings.”

Awareness has since spread across the country. The Palo Alto Unified School District board unanimously decided in 2018 to rename what was then Jordan Middle School.

Members of the IU biology department were working on the letter about Jordan Hall before McRobbie’s announcement, Demas said. Even though it appears university leaders were already moving toward renaming the building, Demas said members of the department felt it was appropriate to express their support.

The letter addressed the importance of preserving history, an argument frequently put forth in opposition to removing controversial monuments, such as statues of Confederate generals. But the letter counters that honorifics are not required for the preservation of history. Rather, some figures should be relegated to museums with detailed explanations of what they stood for.

“Acknowledging Jordan’s role in our past — both at IU and within biology as a field — does not require that we memorialize his name on our place of work,” according to the letter.

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