To: The Caltech Community
From: Thomas F. Rosenbaum, Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and Professor of Physics
Date: January 15, 2021
Re: Caltech's Naming and Recognition Practices
Following the unanimous recommendation of the Committee on Naming and Recognition and my recommendation, the Caltech Board of Trustees has authorized the removal of Robert A. Millikan's name, as well as the names of five other historical figures affiliated with the Human Betterment Foundation (Harry Chandler, Ezra S. Gosney, William B. Munro, Henry M. Robinson, and Albert B. Ruddock), from campus buildings and a series of additional memorializations.
How Caltech is experienced by current and future generations of outstanding scholars hinges on our ability to understand our past and underscore our values. The renamings will help position the Institute to retain and attract the most talented and innovative researchers from every background, so that we may remain a leader in science and technology.
The Committee on Naming and Recognition, constituted in July 2020 and chaired by former Board Chair Benjamin Rosen, brought together individuals from across the Caltech community: students, postdocs, faculty, staff, alumni, and trustees. Its charge was to consider and make recommendations for general policies related to space naming and other forms of recognition, as well as consideration of specific building names on campus. The members of the committee were able to offer diverse perspectives to the issues at hand, representing very different domains of expertise and tapping distinct life experiences and backgrounds. Through a careful, deliberative process, informed by close reading of primary sources, consultation with a broad spectrum of experts, advocates, and Caltech community members, and an open exchange of views, the committee came to clear, unanimous conclusions grounded in Caltech principles. There is extraordinary power in this process, which serves as a guide to reconcile actions with principles. It sets a course for Caltech that both remembers where we came from as an institution and lays the groundwork for times to come.
I urge all members of the community to read the Committee on Naming and Recognition's closely reasoned and methodically detailed final report. It is an important engagement with the Institute's history, animated by a compelling vision for Caltech. It is fraught to judge individuals outside of their time, but it is clear from the documentation presented that Millikan lent his name and his prestige to a morally reprehensible eugenics movement that already had been discredited scientifically during his time. As stewards of Caltech, we must preserve our history and lift up our stories – and here the committee's recommendation to present Millikan's contributions in their full complexity through physical and electronic means is exceptionally important and will be implemented fully – but we must also hearken to the Institute's future.
There are three other aspects of the report that I wish to underscore. First, the members of Ruddock House, present and past, will be consulted and involved in their renaming process. Second, the archival investigation of Thomas Watson Sr.'s ties to Nazi Germany through his leadership of IBM undermines the essential accusations in Edwin Black's IBM and the Holocaust, thereby removing any firm basis to recommend renaming the Watson Laboratories of Applied Physics. Third, the Institute takes seriously its responsibility to implement these changes expeditiously, and to do so in accordance with all legal gift agreements and contractual obligations with the named individuals or descendants. We already have initiated the process of working through such matters and will update the community on pertinent developments.
The decision of the Board of Trustees is of seminal importance to Caltech's future. Renaming buildings is a symbolic act, but one that has real consequences in creating a diverse and inclusive environment. It is an act that helps define who we are and who we strive to be.