IU reviews legacy of school’s 7th president, who advocated eugenics

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If the name of Indiana University’s seventh president is removed from a building on the Bloomington campus, Eric Sandweiss is OK with it. The professor and Carmony Chair in IU’s Department of History sees the removal of a name as a historical event in its own right.

“It’s about getting together to have serious, difficult discussions about who we want to honor and what we want to aspire to,” he said.

And if David Starr Jordan’s name remains on the building at 1001 E. Third St., Sandweiss said he can live with that decision, too. He’ll just choose to understand it in his own way.

“I love to have the markers of history all around me,” he said. “But to me and my students, those markers remind us of both the good side and the flaws of people who came before us.”

Jordan’s belief in and advocacy for the flawed pseudoscience of eugenics, which was often used to justify white supremacy and classism, is why some have pushed for Jordan Hall to be renamed. A university committee has been formed to review all things named after Jordan on IU’s Bloomington campus — Jordan Hall, Jordan River and Jordan Avenue, as well as several scholarships, fellowships and other awards.

The committee is supposed to provide a report with any recommended actions to IU President Michael McRobbie and the university’s naming committee by Sept. 1.

Between now and then, members of the six-person committee will consider the legacy of a man who helped steer IU toward the institution it is today and went on to become the first president of Stanford University.

While Jordan is often remembered for his work as a university administrator, it’s a role he was reluctant to accept, at least initially. Jordan spent the early part of his career teaching and said he would continue doing so even after becoming president of IU.

Born Jan. 19, 1851 in Gainesville, New York, the son of two farmers went to Cornell University with the aid of a county scholarship. He started teaching biology during his junior year to support himself and earned a master of science degree in 1872, after less than four years of study.

Later that year he was hired as a professor of natural science at Lombard University in Galesburg, Illinois, but taught no less than eight subjects there.

The next year he became the principal of a preparatory school in Appleton, Wisconsin, according to his American National Biography entry. From there, he went to Indianapolis where he spent a year teaching high school science.

During his early years as a teacher, Jordan furthered his own education by spending the summers of 1873 and 1874 at Penikese in Buzzard’s Bay, Massachusetts, studying marine biology with Louis Agassiz of Harvard University. During the following year, while teaching high school, Jordan earned a medical degree from the Indiana Medical College.

Jordan became a professor of natural history at North Western Christian University — later called Butler University — in 1875, the same year he married his first wife, Susan Bowen. Four years later, he accepted a similar position at IU.

Jordan was named president of IU in 1885, the same year his first wife died. They had three children together. He had three more children with Jessie Louise Knight, the woman he married in 1887, but only one lived to adulthood.

The American National Biography entry credits Jordan’s swift rise to the quality of his training — a degree from Cornell and summers with Harvard biologists — and dedication as a naturalist — a succession of expeditions to classify fish species and an association with the U.S. Fish Commission. This made him a standout in the Midwest, where the higher education system was still in its infancy.

Jordan was hoping for a permanent position with the U.S. Fish Commission when he was asked to lead the university, according IU Archives. He accepted but with a caveat.

The Bloomington Saturday Courier reported Jordan stating the following at a lecture in early 1885:

“I enter these new relations to my adopted state with no feeling of exultation or of gratified ambition. … If the duties of the President kill the work of the naturalist, these duties must be taken by another hand.”

Despite Jordan’s reluctance, he ended up overseeing a few notable changes as president. He’s often credited with introducing elective classes to the curriculum. Some electives were actually offered before Jordan’s presidency, but he significantly increased the variety of classes students could take and built more flexibility into what had previously been rigid paths to degrees, said Dina Kellams, director of university archives.

“Students were able to dip their toes into different areas of study,” she said.

Jordan also grew the faculty from 18 to 29 members. He encouraged them to study overseas during the summer and they brought back new ideas, Kellams said.

One novel concept were libraries that were dedicated to a specific subject area. In addition to establishing the university’s first departmental libraries, Jordan was responsible for what Kellams described as IU’s first purpose-built library. What is now known as Maxwell Hall was known as Library Hall when it was built in 1890.

“Before that, the library was just a room in a building,” she said.

Jordan’s accomplishments at IU led Leland Stanford and his wife Jane Lathrop Stanford to recruit him as the head of a new university in California named after their late son in 1891. Unlike when he was tapped for the top job at IU, Jordan quickly accepted the Stanfords’ offer.

“He was brought in to build this new university,” Kellams said. “I imagine it was probably pretty exciting.”

The foundation Jordan built had plenty of Hoosier ties. He took about 37 students and six IU faculty members with him, Kellams said.

It wasn’t until after Jordan left IU that his name started cropping up on the Bloomington campus. The first thing named after him was probably Jordan Field. It was an athletics field that was flooded about half the year and located roughly where the Indiana Memorial Union parking lot is today, Sandweiss said.

The earliest reference to Jordan Field that Sandweiss could find was on a campus map from 1909.

A campus map from 1911 included the name Jordan Creek. Some time prior to that it had been known as Spankers Branch of Clear Creek.

It’s not exactly clear why people started calling the small tributary a river, but there was a music group of IU students in the early 1920s that called themselves the Jordan River Revue. Singer, songwriter and composer Hoagy Carmichael was among the members, Sandweiss said.

Jordan Avenue was previously Jordan Street, according to a 1915 campus map. That’s the earliest reference Sandweiss could find. At that time, the road ran from Maxwell Lane to about Fifth Street, he said.

Minutes from an IU Board of Trustees meeting in 1954 show members voting on a recommendation to name a new building the Jordan Hall of Biology.

While Jordan’s reputation as a respected naturalist and American university builder helped get his name on numerous things in the 20th century, his advocacy for eugenics is causing some to reconsider those names in the 21st century.

The Palo Alto Unified School District board unanimously decided to rename what was then Jordan Middle School in 2018. Earlier this year, more than 70 members of IU’s biology department, largely housed in Jordan Hall, sent a letter to university leaders calling for the building to be renamed.

Eugenics wasn’t without controversy during Jordan’s life, but it had more support than it does today.

As a naturalist, Jordan was interested in evolution and its implications in society. In the 1880s, he met the Rev. Oscar McCulloch of Indianapolis. McCulloch ran a church that provided aid to the poor. At some point, McCulloch decided it was his business to determine who deserved the benefits of the church, Sandweiss said.

McCulloch began studying a group of poor people dubbed The Tribe of Ishmael. Tracing their genealogy led McCulloch to conclude the undesirable characteristics of criminal behavior and terminal laziness were hereditary. Jordan would later write in his autobiography that his relationship with McCulloch helped shape his own beliefs, Sandweiss said.

The concept of eugenics shows up in Jordan’s writings and talks during the 1880s and 1890s. He wrote a book called “Blood of The Nation: A Study In The Decay of Races By The Survival of The Unfit,” that was published in 1902.

Eugenics is the practice of selective breeding in humans. This was often accomplished through forced sterilization. But Sandweiss said he could not find specific references where Jordan advocated for sterilization. Jordan seemed to mostly use eugenics as justification for his anti-war policies.

“He was more saying, if you have wars — and he was thinking of The Great War — you lose the prime of your manhood, you lose the people best suited to carry on the noble traditions of your nation,” Sandweiss said.

While Jordan may have used eugenics to promote peace, he was involved with organizations that advocated for forced sterilization of those deemed unfit reproduce, such as the Human Betterment Foundation. He is also said to have looked to eugenics as a way to prevent the decay of the Anglo-Saxon/Nordic race by limiting racial mixing.

Gregory Demas, chairman of the biology department and a signatory of the letter to rename Jordan Hall, said students and faculty don’t like coming into a building named after Jordan because of his beliefs.

“In addition to his historical role at IU, David Starr Jordan was a vociferous and avowed eugenicist who espoused racist views of non-white people,” according to the letter.

If that sentiment is widely shared by the IU community, then Sandweiss said it’s time to take Jordan’s name off the building and other things around campus.

Throughout the history of this country, Americans have looked for heroes to represent their aspirations. But if the people held up as heroes no longer represent the values of the present generation, reconsidering their place in society doesn’t do a disservice to history, Sandweiss said.

“To me, both the initial acts of commemoration and later acts of reconsideration are part of the fascination of being American,” he said.

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4 thoughts on “IU reviews legacy of school’s 7th president, who advocated eugenics

  1. In evaluating the moral weight to be given a charge of support of eugenics by an individual in early twentieth century, notice should be given to the 1927 decision of the Supreme Court in Buck v Bell which upheld the state-sponsored sterilization of the “feeble minded”. In the opinion for the Court written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, the fabled jurist observed that “three generations of imbeciles are enough”. When law schools blackball Holmes, I will be sympathetic to the pathetic gesture of renaming the Jordan River.

  2. Dr. David S. Jordan was a giant in the field of education in his day, and he wasn’t a ‘monster’ (or a thought criminal) until the 21st century made him one. When will colleges and universities wake up and stop responding to the puling, imaginary ‘offenses’ that pass like air through the emotionally fragile brain pans of these overaged children? Moreover, when will alumni begin withholding their donations and finally bring this campus madness to an end?

    The notion of eugenics and ‘selective breeding’ is at least as old as ancient Sparta, and doubtless even older. The shunning of Creationism and the adoption of Darwinism with the progression of ‘logical’ thought that descended from it could have ONLY led the scientists and anthropologists of the period to conclude that eugenics was a useful method of improving the human race. ‘Survival of the fittest’ seemed to mean that if you started mingling stronger, smarter, natural leaders and Big Thinkers, you’d go on to create a whole population of babies just like them eventually. Moreover, biologists, anthropologists and sociologists frequently agreed that, given time, you could breed out the lazy, the criminal, the war-monger, and the ‘congenitally’ ignorant, thus curing society of poverty, crime and war.

    This wasn’t fringe stuff. This was all state of the art scientific theory from the 1880s for a half-century and more, all the way up until Nazism showed the world the ultimate result of that ‘logical progression,’ immediately drawing an end to the West’s experimentation with it. There have been repeated allegations that the Japanese, the Soviets, the Chinese, the North Koreans and other states have obscured their own historical – and even modern -dabblings and tinkerings with eugenics. But what is, after all, artificial insemination, messing about with genetic code, and gene splicing today, but an extension of eugenics without the messy part of copulation or openly acknowledging race preferences? And will IU’s Med School luminaries of today who are experimenting in these fields be reclassified as criminals a century from now?

    Stop rewriting the past.