On June 12, 76 faculty members and researchers at the IU biology department sent a letter to President Michael McRobbie and other IU administrators calling for Jordan Hall to be renamed. This letter comes amid an international movement to remove racist statues and symbols after the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer caused word-wide protests against police brutality and racism.
“David Starr Jordan was a vociferous and avowed eugenicist who espoused racist views of non-white people,” the letter reads. “How are we to practice and promote inclusion at IU when symbols of those that once promoted exclusionist ideals remain in plain sight?”
Jordan was an ichthyologist and the seventh president of IU, serving between 1884 and 1891, after which he served as the inaugural president of Stanford University from 1891 to 1913. At IU, he was the president who reformed the university’s curricula by switching from classical education to modern-day curricular majors and electives.
Early Stanford students found their first president memorable for being able to remember each student’s name even after they graduated, according to an article in the January/February 2010 issue of Stanford Magazine. Jane Stanford, co-founder of Stanford University, wrote fondly of Jordan. “He has been the loyal, true friend through the past dark years of sorrow and anxiety,” she wrote to Jordan’s wife in 1899, according to the article.
However, Jordan was also a lifelong supporter of eugenics, the racist pseudoscience of improving the human population through selective breeding to magnify certain “desirable” traits using practices such as forced sterilization. He chaired the first Committee on Eugenics of the American Breeder’s Association and was a founding trustee of the Human Betterment Foundation, both of which promoted forced sterilization of the “degenerate stock,” who were often women, people of color, people with mental health issues, disabilities and diseases and criminals.
Forced sterilization was a reality in the U.S. for decades. A total of 70,000 Americans were forcibly sterilized in the 20th century.
Indiana’s 1907 Eugenics Law was the first of its kind in the U.S. and authorized a forced sterilization program in state institutions targeting “confirmed criminals, idiots, imbeciles and rapists," according to the Indiana State Government website.
“For a race of men or a herd of cattle are governed by the same laws of selection,” Jordan wrote in his famous series of publications “The Blood of the Nation: A Study in the Decay of Races by the Survival of the Unfit.” “Heredity carries over not oppression, but those qualities of mind and heard which invite or which defy oppression.”
Around 2,500 Hoosiers were forcibly sterilized before 1974, when the practice ended.
In 2018, a middle school in Palo Alto, California, was renamed from David Starr Jordan Middle School to Frank S. Greene Jr. Middle School following a unanimous decision by the Burbank Unified School District's Board of Education due to Jordan’s eugenicist background.
On IU's Office of the President website, there is no mention of Jordan’s eugenicist background.
“Jordan was an outstanding scientist and the first layman to be named president of IU,” the website writes.
The biology department letter writes that although Jordan was part of IU’s history, it doesn't mean there has to be a building named after him.
“We know that history must not be forgotten lest we repeat it; but this history should be placed where it belongs: in a museum with a detailed explanation of its meaning,” the letter reads. “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.”
To Scott Michaels, professor and associate chair for research and facilities at the biology department, the argument that renaming Jordan Hall erases history doesn’t hold much water.
“Consider this scenario: you buy a house that has 100-year-old green and magenta wallpaper in the dining room,” he said in an email. “You despise that wallpaper. Would you look at that wallpaper for the rest of your life just because some long-deceased person thought it was nice?”
“In my own opinion, each generation should get to decorate their own home/world,” he wrote. “In cases where older things are still copacetic with modern thoughts, tastes, attitudes or ideas, by all means keep them. If they cause pain, embarrassment, conflict and strife, by all means get rid of them.”
Biology department chair Gregory Demas acknowledged that in Jordan’s time, many biologists were eugenicists. But he said Jordan took it further than other people with his advocacy for the eugenics movement.
In the June 12 IU Board of Trustees meeting, McRobbie announced that all named buildings and structures on IU campuses will be reviewed to determine if the names should remain and singled out Jordan as one of such names.
Demas said he didn’t know much about Jordan except that he studied fish before the 2017 flyers incident in Jordan Hall.
In 2017, anonymous paper slips were scattered across Jordan Hall marked with the hashtags #renameJordan and #decolonizeIU. Each slip included facts about Jordan’s involvement with the eugenics movement.
Jordan Hall’s renaming was brought up again in 2018 after segregationist Ora Wildermuth’s name was taken off of what is now called the William Leon Garrett Fieldhouse. Students and faculty discussed it at an event hosted by the College of Arts and Sciences’ Political and Civic Engagement program, but no action was taken by the school at that time.
Demas said the idea of sending a letter to IU administrators calling for the renaming of Jordan Hall was brought up in a virtual department faculty meeting before McRobbie announced a comprehensive review of all named buildings. The meeting followed the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and the resulting Black Lives Matter protests across the country and aimed at addressing the department’s intolerance for racism.
The 76 faculty and researchers, which Demas said represented nearly, if not exactly, the entire department, decided to present the letter as a group to represent their collective decision.
Meanwhile, an online petition to rename Jordan Hall, Jordan Avenue and Jordan River has collected 4,304 signatures. The petition gathered 1,500 signatures in the first 24 hours, said Megan Chapman, the creator of the petition and a class of 2020 history and international studies graduate and incoming law student at the Maurer School of Law. She said she was surprised by how quickly the petition took off.
Chapman said she started the petition shortly after Black Lives Matter protests began. She was inspired by an online petition to rename five buildings in the University of Alabama that commemorate individuals with a racist history, which has collected nearly 20,000 signatures.
Chapman said she learned about Jordan’s history in her freshman year when a friend mentioned Jordan’s eugenicist background to her when they were walking past Jordan Hall. She learned more about Jordan on Google around the time the flyers incident took place.
She said although IU is not actively endorsing Jordan’s eugenicist views, the university is passively accepting those views by displaying his name on campus.
“By continuing to have Jordan’s name emblazoned on its campus, IU provides its support for Jordan’s unacceptable views as well as his role in the American eugenics movement and by extension its resulting impact on both people of color and the Jewish community,” the petition writes.
There have been efforts to rename buildings and schools and take down statues across the country that memorialize people who had racist beliefs. Some have questioned these efforts, saying the memorialized people were good people despite their racist pasts. Chapman said people who question renaming efforts and the toppling of statues are only making excuses.
“The majority of people I see who pose those questions are mainly white people who have never really, at least in the history of this country, had their experiences or rights questioned or taken away from them because they were viewed as lesser than,” she said.
In a release Tuesday, the IU Student Government announced it passed a resolution supporting the renaming of Jordan Hall and Jordan River.
“Given David Starr Jordan’s significant involvement in the eugenics movement, he is an inappropriate namesake for our campus’s landmarks,” said Andrew Ireland, a law student and the Speaker of Congress, in the release. “These spaces should be renamed to reflect the very best of what Indiana University has to offer.”
The University Naming Committee responsible for reviewing building names are working through the process and have no timeline yet for announcing any name changes, said Amanda Roach, assistant director of strategic communications at IU-Bloomington.