David Starr Jordan and the Students Against Him

On Tuesday, November 7, Associate Chair of the biology department Dr. Scott Michaels sent an email out about a “small, but possibly growing, movement on campus to remove the name of David Starr Jordan from Jordan Hall.” In the past weeks, members of the campus group Students against State Violence posted several notes in Jordan Hall detailing the former IU president and ichthyologist’s support for the American eugenics movement. Their hashtags #decolonizeIU and #renameJordan have challenged IU to rename the building and other monuments that venerate him.

I spoke with Lauren and Jacob, members of Students against State Violence (SASV), about their #renameJordan campaign. Their explanations make parallels to similar campaigns to remove or rename campus building, such as the nascent push to rename the Wildermuth Intramural Center (WIC), which memorializes the former IU trustee and public segregationist Ora Wildermuth, or Provost Robel’s decision to stop using Woodburn Hall 100 as a classroom because one of its Thomas H. Benton murals depicts the Ku Klux Klan. They also discussed some of SASV’s philosophy about activism and their pursuit of social change outside the normal channels of student-administration relations. Our full, recorded interviews are below.

In his email, the biology chair wrote that IUPD had been contacted to review video footage of the suspects. He asked people to “please remove [the flyers] when you find them,” and “remain vigilant” against future incidents. The social media backlash was swift:

Jordan Hall, the Jordan River which runs through campus, Jordan Avenue, several fish species and a scholarship fund are named after Dr. David Starr Jordan, who was an IU professor in 1879, President of IU by 1885, and founding president of Stanford University, which he served from 1891 to 1913. As President of IU, he doubled enrollment, created the modern elective system of courses, and raised funds from the state legislature to transform IU from a religious seminary to a modern research university. He was also one of the foremost ichthyologists of his time.

The notes posted in Jordan Hall highlight his darker legacy. In 1902, he published one of the first books on eugenics in America, “The Blood of the Nation: a study of the decay of races through the survival of the unfit.” It followed Francis Galton’s theory of less than 20 years earlier that selectively marrying desirable members of a species would make the poor, weaker genetics die out. Jordan applied this Social Darwinism to his belief in “superiority of the Anglo-Saxon,” arguing that

Colonial aggrandizement is not national expansion; slaves are not men. Wherever degenerate, dependent or alien races are within our borders to-day, they are not part of the United States. They constitute a social problem; a menace to peace and welfare.

He believed that because war killed off the fittest of a nation, the weaker hereditary would populate and corrupt the Anglo-Saxon/Nordic race. For this reason, he opposed WWI and chaired the pacifist World Peace Organization from 1910 to 1914. His solution to the perceived genetic decay of America was a state-sanctioned campaign of forced sterilization, anti-miscegenation and severely limiting immigration from Mexico, east Asia and southern/eastern Europe (which he also considered non-white). In 1906 he chaired the first U.S. conference on eugenics for the American Breeders Association. In 1907 he pressured the Indiana state legislature to pass the first sterilization law in the U.S. California quickly replicated the legislation and has since forcefully sterilized about 20,000 people. California’s success was “thanks in large measure to the prominence and organizational abilities of David Starr Jordan and the resources of Ezra Gosney,” according to historian Sheldon Ekland Olsen. In 1938, Jordan and his colleague Ezra Gosney founded of the American Betterment Foundation, which produced texts like “Sterilization for human betterment: A summary of results of 6,000 operations in California, 1909–1929.”

As this timeline illustrates, the sober Mendelians of the era were never fully on board with this genocidal political agenda. As early as 1910, the Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium model thoroughly refuted the idea that sterilization would ever significantly reduce the percent of mentally impaired people in a society. Crop geneticists like George Shull had repeatedly shown that interspecies hybrids survived better than purebred strains. These findings demonstrated that the American eugenics movement was less about science and more about a way to rationalize the dominance of rich, white classes.

According to historian Stefan Kühl in “The Nazi Connection,” Indiana and California sterilization laws were direct models for the 1935 Nuremberg racial hygiene laws. We also know the California eugenics movement inspired Nazi Germany’s T-4 Euthanasia program, which gassed, shot and poisoned an estimated 70,000 people deemed burdens to the state welfare budget and threats to Aryan purity. Letters sent between American eugenicists brag about how the work of the Human Betterment Foundation “played a powerful part in shaping the opinions of the group of intellectuals who are behind Hitler in this epoch-making program.”  American eugenicist Harry H. Laughlin, an associate on the eastern coast, literally wrote the legal model for the Germany’s 1933 Sterilization Law. Nazi doctors in their defense at the Nuremberg Trials even pointed to the writings of American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, who quipped in the 1927 majority opinion of Buck v. Bell that, “three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

For some people, what is difficult about singling out Jordan is that his views were not unusual for his time. As IU biology professor Scott Michaels said in a recent Indiana Daily Student article, “It’s easy to see those eugenicists as wackadoodles, but people bought into this, not just Jordan.” It is true that eugenics became an unquestioned axiom of how the Americans at every level of government and society dealt with the imprisoned, poor people, the physically disabled, racial minorities and “feeble-minded.”

Between roughly the 1880s to 1940s, the eugenics movement pervaded all aspects of American political life, including its progressive forces. Margaret Sanger, feminist icon and spiritual founder of Planned Parenthood, incorporated the language of “positive eugenics” into her arguments for the morality of birth control. In her writings on contraception and abortion, she implored her audience to “assist the race toward the elimination of the unfit.” W.E.B. DuBois argued in 1905 that “only fit blacks should procreate to eradicate the race’s heritage of moral iniquity.” Black academia at Howard, Tuskegee and Hampton sponsored seminars on “Assimilationist Eugenics” arguing with DuBois that “‘the Talented Tenth’ of all races should mix, as the best blacks were as good as the best whites.” The NAACP hosted Better Baby competitions to fundraise for civil rights. Most of the American scientific academy supported eugenics. You can find it in the period’s college curriculum, biology textbooks, magazine ads and op-eds.

Nor was eugenics relegated to political activism. Historian Christine Rosen shows that eugenics “flourished in the liberal Protestant, Catholic and Jewish mainstream.”  Fundamentalist theologian Harry E. Fosdick, Reform Rabbi Stephen S. Wise and Catholic Priest John A. Ryan supported eugenics programs. Catholic social teaching, well-known for its rejection of any agenda that contributes to the “culture of death,” had deep divisions in America until the 1930 papal encyclical Casti Connubi officially reputed the movement’s methods and goals. U.S. courts continually upheld forceful sterilization as constitutional and necessary “to prevent our being swamped with incompetence.” Eugenics was and still is a prominent feature of KKK ideology and white nationalism.

It’s nice to think that the movement in America declined after Nazi Germany took it to its logical, genocidal conclusion. But California’s eugenics law remained on the books until 1974. The landmark 1927 Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell has not been overturned. And as Alexandra Stern demonstrates in Eugenic Nation, only increased access to reproductive technology and the rise of radical liberation movements for women and racial minorities in 1960s and 70s actually challenged the sterilization laws, stigmatized the pseudo-science and shifted public opinion against eugenics. Even now however, thousands of women can remember forced sterilization of Native Americans, Hispanics and blacks mere decades ago. Fairly recently, the Center for Investigative Reporting found that the state of California forcefully sterilized nearly 150 female inmates between 2006 and 2010. For Students against State Violence, the memorials to David Starr Jordan on campus implicitly endorse these traditions of violence, sanitize a lurid and horrific history, and trivialize the suffering of its surviving victims.

For my interviewees Jacob and Lauren, how we relate to Indiana’s troubled past is inextricably tied to how we memorialize present space. If collective memory is a scarce resource, the university is forced to make choices on who and what to remember. But the argument on Jordan Hall can go a few different ways: According to SASV, naming buildings, roads and rivers after David Starr Jordan makes his legacy something to be emulated and hollowed. That is immoral because our community shouldn’t elevate racists and eugenicists. The charitable counterargument says that name-changing effectively erases history; Jordan’s name on campus reminds the curious Google-er about Indiana’s dark past, which is a good thing. Related to this argument is the suggestion that Jordan actually has a legacy worth remembering – the building commemorates his contributions to science and to the foundation to the university, not necessarily to eugenics. In speaking with the Indiana Daily Student, biology department chair Dr. Scott Michaels asked:

What do you do with someone like that who’s made great contributions on one hand and was just a bad person on the other hand? Do we chisel their names off all the buildings? I don’t know the answer to that.

The lazy counterargument to SAVS says that no one cares what buildings are named after whom; old people are forgotten anyway and changing the name is more effort than it’s worth. A name’s origins does not determine its present value.

Lauren rejected both suggestions point-blank. To the first, she claims:

There is a huge difference between recognizing history and memorializing these people. Most of the people we’ve talked to, who’ve worked in Jordan Hall, who have been part of this community had no idea about who he was, this eugenicist, white supremacist. So even though the building is named after him, that doesn’t mean that history was being recognized in any way. Memorializing these people validates what they did.

She suggested that the building could be renamed and a plaque could give a reason why and explain who Jordan was, both as a scientist and as the architect of Indiana’s eugenics program. For her, these kinds of steps would recognize history. The current arrangement does no such thing. For example, Jordan’s unique role in Indiana’s eugenics laws is notably absent on the Office of the President’s webpage on him, nor is it mentioned on any of the portraits of him around Jordan Hall.

As to the lazy counterargument, she says, “there really is no way to separate the name from the person. There really is no reason to why the building can’t just be renamed after someone more worthy.”

I tend to agree.