Pomona Community Petitions To Remove Nobel Laureate From Physics Building

Pomona students, alumni, and faculty are circulating a petition calling for the renaming of the Millikan building on Pomona’s campus. The Robert A. Millikan Hall hosts the Physics, Astronomy and Mathematics departments of the elite liberal arts college. The petition has been signed by numerous students, faculty and alumni of the physics and astronomy department, including the department chair, Dwight Whitaker.

Robert A. Millikan (1868-1953) was a prominent physicist, credited with many discoveries such as measuring the charge of the electron via the oil-drop experiment, for which he won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1923. Many other prominent institutions have buildings dedicated to Millikan, including the library of Caltech, for which there is also a renaming petition. Millikan Hall was originally built at Pomona in 1958 and rebuilt in 2015. 

On a post advertising the petition, one student referred to him as a “sexist racist,” with another saying “f**k nazis.” One commenter requested specifically that the building be renamed after someone who is/was black. 

The petition states that Millikan, a member of the Human Betterment Foundation, of advocating for “forced sterilization,”  with a link showing that the Foundation — which was dissolved in 1942 — did indeed believe that “forced sterilization” would be “100% effective.” Members of the Foundation shared this research with Nazi Germany, which influenced policy decisions of the Nazi leadership.  

Millikan is also accused of misogyny; in one letter, concerning whether or not to hire Heather Sponer as a physics member of faculty, he wrote rather “[pick] one or two of the most outstanding men than [a woman]” for his department during his time at Duke University, insisting that he chose faculty who were “the most outstanding,” as well as pointing out that women were doing “outstanding work” in many areas of science. 

A further accusation of racism comes when Millikan referred to California as “the farthest western outpost of Arian [sic] civilisation,” referring to the “Anglo-Saxon” settlement of the region. Prior to the Second World War, when Millikan’s remarks were made, the term “Aryan” referred to all people who speak Indo-European languages, including those who originated from the fringes of western Europe all the way to Sri Lanka. During and after the Second World War, the term is often used by white supremacists to refer to people of Northern European descent. 

The petition concludes that “[k]eeping Millikan’s name on a hall of learning undermines the College’s stated goal of using education as ‘a mechanism for addressing historical injustices and for grappling with contemporary inequities.’” 

Pomona College’s Carnegie Hall, which houses the Economics and Politics departments, was gifted by industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who also was tied to and funded eugenics research. At time of publication, there is not yet a petition calling for the renaming of Carnegie Hall. 

The petition comes as comments and views on race and gender held by many prominent physicists such as Richard Feynman and Albert Einstein, have come under scrutiny. 

Pomona’s Physics and Astronomy department also has a “Decolonizing Physics” project, during which students have to create a project and presentation based around diversity in physics or astronomy. The project is a graded part of PHYS101, a core class required for all physics majors, and is also mandatory for ASTR001, an introductory class for astronomy students.

This petition comes as the latest pushback against anti-Semitism on campus; there was a previous petition after Pomona College’s 2020-2021 senior class president shared anti-Semitic remarks on social media.

 

Photo: Pomona College

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