Should UChicago rename the “Robert A. Millikan Professorship?”

UChicago needs to follow Caltech’s lead and consider renaming its professorship.

By Robert Michaelson

Some in the UChicago community may be aware of the recent announcement that Caltech will be removing the name of Robert A. Millikan from the most prominent building on its campus.

Caltech's reason for stripping Millikan's name from this building is his participation in the “Human Betterment Foundation (HBF),” a eugenics organization established in 1928, which advocated legislation for compulsory sterilization to promote eugenics, and also in consideration of Millikan's “stances on gender, race, and ethnicity,” which Caltech's committee found to be “sexist, racist, xenophobic, and inexcusable by any standard.” As Caltech's president, Thomas F. Rosenbaum, noted, “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.”

Prior to going to Caltech in 1921 to become its first president, Millikan had been a professor of physics at Chicago, where he did his Nobel Prize-winning work. 

As some Maroon readers know, UChicago has an endowed Chair, the “Robert A. Millikan Distinguished Service Professorship,” currently held by Matthew Tirrell, the Dean of the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering. Although Millikan's time on the Chicago faculty was prior to the establishment of the HBF, one may ask if that matters, or should matter, in considering the question of whether to continue to honor him with the name of this professorship. Certainly, the issue is grave enough that the University should make a serious inquiry to decide whether to strip Millikan's name from that professorship. Caltech determined that Millikan was guilty of a “breach of Caltech's core commitments.” An argument can well be made that Millikan was also guilty of a breach of the University of Chicago's core commitments––which include, at least, a commitment to dispassionate inquiry into the truth.

It would be reasonable to consult Caltech's president on this matter since he is well aware of Chicago's core commitments: Prior to taking his current position, Rosenbaum had been Provost and the John T. Wilson Distinguished Service Professor of Physics at the University of Chicago.

—Robert Michaelson, S.B. ’66