To: The Caltech Community
From: Thomas F. Rosenbaum, Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and Professor of Physics
Date: December 9, 2019
Re: 2019 End of Year Message
At a special college assembly on February 11, 1920, President James A.B. Scherer announced that the Board of Trustees had voted to change the name of the Throop College of Technology to the California Institute of Technology. According to The Pasadena Star-News of that same date, "the trustees felt impelled to change the name of the institution in order to denote and signalize its altered scope, recent developments having transformed it from a college of primarily local significance into a scientific school of national importance."
The "recent developments" were a direct consequence of astronomer George Ellery Hale's vision. Philanthropist and politician Amos G. Throop started his vocational and preparatory school, Throop University, in 1891 to bring "liberal and practical" educational opportunities to a rapidly growing Southern California. Sixteen years later, when Hale joined Throop's governing board, the region and the school's potential within it had changed. "In a word, the day of the rapid and widespread applications of science to industry in many forms had dawned, especially in Southern California," another of Caltech's founders, Robert A. Millikan, later explained in his autobiography. "The opportunity to serve the community and the nation in a large way was clearly here."
Hale convinced Throop's governing body to seize on that opportunity in ways that would dramatically change the school and its mission. Throop's trajectory had been one of expansion—in terms of enrollment, campus size, and fields of study. With a sharp focus on science and engineering, the institute closed its primary and secondary schools and teachers' college, winnowing a student enrollment that had been more than 600 to 27. In 1910, the journal American Educational Review reported of the move: "This contraction of numbers in the face of a great expansion of plan is probably the boldest step ever taken by an American educational institution, and marks the determination to concentrate resources on the development of an institute of technology that shall rank with the best of the world."
In April 1920, the California Secretary of State certified that the name change petition had been filed, completing the legal process. Modern Caltech, whose centenary we celebrate with the turn of the calendar, was born.
One hundred years later, we hew to the same vision. We are committed to getting better, not bigger. We focus on scientific and technological areas of importance where we can create a discriminating advantage and rank with the best anywhere. We seek to create knowledge for the ages and to serve the community, the nation, and the world through the application of our fundamental discoveries.
It is important to recognize, however, that the transformation from Throop to Caltech came with costs. An institution that educated both male and female students closed its gates to half the population. It took fifty years for Caltech to once again admit women to its classrooms, with 2020 marking the centenary of our modern incarnation, but only the half-centenary of undergraduate coeducation at the Institute.
The importance of this half-centenary is profound. The ultimate source of Caltech's success is its people. We must be a destination for creative and original thinkers from every background, from every group, representing a diversity of intellectual and life perspectives, to remain competitive at the highest levels and to fulfill the promise of our modern incarnation.
We should be justly proud of the extraordinary institution that Caltech represents, and the shining example it sets for discovery, societal impact, and, most of all, scientific integrity, excellence, and commitment. At the same time, we must never become too comfortable. The seriousness and rigor that we apply to our science also must inform the steps that we take to build a diverse and inclusive community. May 2020 be a year of celebration and progress, for each of us and for modern Caltech.