To the Editors:
With regard to Jessica Riskin’s enlightening piece, “A Poisonous Legacy” [NYR, June 22], and in particular the egregious David Starr Jordan, the founding president of Stanford University: Jordan previously served as the seventh president of Indiana University, from 1884 to 1891. In the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the widespread reckoning with our racist past (and present), the Board of Trustees of Indiana University removed Jordan’s name from the biology building, and also renamed a major thoroughfare bearing his name to Eagleson Avenue to honor a local Black family who played a prominent role in the life of the university, the city, and beyond.
Robert A. Schneider
Professor of History
To the Editors:
Jessica Riskin concludes her review “A Poisonous Legacy” by offering a “small taste of antidote” to her “poisonous tale”: the “Stanford Eugenics History Project won its cause. The building formerly known as Jordan Hall is now nameless, awaiting a new name.” If a name needs to be removed from a building at Stanford University because “Stanford is us” and so “we have to do what we can to make it right,” as a student tells Riskin, surely making it right would mean changing the name of Stanford University. After all, the books under review are about the white supremacist Leland Stanford, not Jordan Hall. Now that would be an antidote with more than a “taste.” Just call it University. The new name can wait.
Jessica Riskin replies:
Thanks for these responses about the ways universities can address their own histories of racism and misconduct. Regarding the name of Stanford University itself, it’s actually named not for Leland Stanford Sr. but for his son, Leland Jr., who died at age fifteen. I suppose we can hope he might have grown up to repudiate his father’s pernicious views.
The perennial chance to rethink things embodied by the next generation is, after all, the crucial feature of universities. In my review, I mentioned that it was a student movement on the history of eugenics at Stanford led by an undergraduate, Ben Maldonado, that resulted in the renaming of Jordan Hall. The recent resignation of Stanford president Marc Tessier-Lavigne, over fabricated evidence in his scientific research, affirms that our students can be our living conscience; in this case, it was a freshman journalist on The Stanford Daily, Theo Baker, along with his editors and colleagues at the Daily, who held the university to account. As a faculty member, I feel a great intellectual advantage in being in continual conversation with students, who arrive new and clear-eyed, asking foundational questions. I’ve found that giving them the benefit of my perspective means also accepting from them the benefit of theirs.