The University of Michigan is changing the names of a campus building and a house within a residence hall on the Ann Arbor campus after the legacies of the namesakes were called into question.
Following a recommendation from President Mark Schlissel, the Board of Regents on Thursday voted to rescind and remove the names of Clarence Cook Little from a Central Campus science building and Alexander Winchell from a portion of the West Quadrangle Residence Hall.
“The decision to change the name of a building or house within our residence hall is not one we take lightly,” Schlissel said. “I deeply appreciate the thoughtful and deliberate way in which we approached this decision.”
Two separate formal requests to review the names were submitted to Schlissel last year. A student presented the Winchell request. Three professors and a student from LSA submitted the request for Little. After an initial review, Schlissel presented both requests to the President’s Advisory Committee on University History for consideration.
In January 2017, a new review process was established for considering questions raised by members of the university community about historical names in and on university buildings. The process articulates a set of principles that function as guidelines.
“Our review principles include that those who wish to change the formally designated names of spaces or buildings carry a heavy burden to justify removal of a name,” Schlissel said. “I believe that burden has been met for these two instances.”
“Changing historical names should be difficult. Doing the right thing, though, shouldn’t be difficult. I commend Thurnau Professor and former LSA dean and history professor Terry McDonald and his committee for their thorough review of history and agree with their findings. I will vote in favor of removing both names and am proud to do so,” said Regent Andrea Fischer Newman.
“It’s really difficult to go back 40, 50, or 100 years and put ourselves in the shoes of the Board of Regents who made the initial decisions on bestowing building names and determining whether the naming was appropriate at the time the decisions were made. So I think when we’re entertaining these decisions, we should be careful to give deference to the board at the time,” said Regent Andrew Richner.
“In the case of C.C. Little, it was the Board of Regents in 1968, 40 years after Little served his short stint as president, who named the building. The board who knew him best in the 1920s sent Little on his way without bestowing any such fanfare or honor. It is that board who I think deserves our deference and I will support the motion for renaming that building as well.”
“I want to compliment the petitioners for taking the initiative to bring this in front of the president and ultimately in front of the committee. I think, certainly, that my vote has been influenced by the work of the committee, which I thought was extraordinary,” said Regent Ron Weiser.
“As with what Andrea Newman said, I think it’s important that we consider these things carefully and make sure they’re done in the proper way and that the appropriate outcome is reached. And also that no contractual obligations are violated.”
The advisory committee, led by Terrence J. McDonald, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, professor of history and director of the Bentley Historical Library, scrutinized the requests using a process that draws on rigorous scholarship and carefully considers context, complex factors and nuance. The committee recommended to the president that both the Little and Winchell names be removed.
“Little lent his scientific prestige to public policy campaigns, supposedly based in science, but actually whose scientific foundations were minimal, exaggerated, or contradicted by mainstream scientists or the contemporary scientific consensus,” the committee report says.
“Our committee’s work has been animated by two connected beliefs, first and foremost, that we are wedded to our past with all that is uplifting and troubling within it, and second, that a better understanding of our past can be a very good reason for changing the way we commemorate a person in our history,” McDonald said.
The committee also emphasized that Little’s promotion of eugenics and work on behalf of the tobacco industry had serious negative consequences on the lives of many of people.
His 1920s campaign for eugenic measures — while university president — called for immigration restriction, anti-miscegenation laws, and the sterilization of the “unfit.” In the 1950s, Little also filled the role of scientific director of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Tobacco Industry Research Committee. As the director, Little was the leading scientific voice for the tobacco industry.
He refused to accept that environmental factors could cause cancer, maintaining it was a genetic disease, despite groundbreaking research on the link between cancer and tobacco performed with mice.
“Little ignored scientific principles to the harm of millions of people, so I support the request to remove his name from a building we use to teach science at the University of Michigan,” Schlissel said.
The content of Winchell’s work also was reviewed by the committee. Winchell was a U-M professor of physics, civil engineering, geology and paleontology. The committee noted that “by both contemporary standards and even in the context of Winchell’s day, his most notable work — the 1880 book titled, ‘Preadamites, or a Demonstration of the Existence of Men before Adam’ — was unambiguously racist and out of step with the University’s own aspirations in those times.”
“Winchell’s book continues to be used in support of white supremacy,” Schlissel said. “His name does not merit, nor does it belong, as the name of one of our houses in a University of Michigan residence hall.”
McDonald explained, “Historical memory and historical commemoration are not the same thing. The past is given to us to remember and understand and, therefore, is a kind of necessity; what we now commemorate from that past is a choice we make and one that must reflect our institutional values.”
The C.C. Little Science Building will be referred to by the building’s street address, 1100 North University Avenue, until the building is renamed under the university’s 2008 facility naming policy.
The vice president for student life will lead a process that brings forward recommendations for the renaming of Winchell House.