Occidental community grapples with Paul Popenoe degree

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Professor of Biology and chair of multiple Advisory Committees Gretchen North discusses Occidental's past eugenics scandal at Occidental College. Friday, April 5, 2019. Zachary Forsyte/The Occidental

A recent op-ed written by E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics and professor of Urban & Environmental Policy (UEP) Peter Dreier, Should Oxy rescind an honorary degree to a racist recipient?“, has ignited a debate on campus about Occidental’s historic relationship with eugenicist Paul Popenoe. Popenoe was recognized by the school with an honorary degree in 1929 and received the Auld Lang Syne Award in 1976. Calls for the revocation of the degree throughout the Occidental community place increased pressure on the next board of trustees meeting, which is scheduled for the end of April, according to Secretary of the College and Interim Assistant Dean of the Library/CDLA Marsha Schnirring. The board of trustees adopted an official Honorary Degree Revocation Policy in 2015 when the college revoked Bill Cosby’s honorary degree, according to Schnirring.

Occidental College awards honorary degrees to individuals “whose extraordinary accomplishments have advanced the scope of human understanding” or “have made a positive difference in the lives of their and our community” or “whose work helps create and sustain opportunities for those whom opportunity is often denied by history, policy, or circumstance,” according to a statement on honorary degrees adopted by the board of trustees Feb. 11, 2003.

Biology professor Gretchen North is the president of Occidental’s faculty council. Immediately after the publication of Dreier’s article, the faculty council began discussing taking an official stance in support of rescinding the honorary degree, according to North.

North pointed to the 2015 revocation policy as grounds for rescinding Popenoe’s honorary degree. She specifically cites a clause which affirms that an honorary degree shall be revoked if there would be a “deleterious” effect on Occidental’s community or core values if it is not revoked.

“It’s not just the school values, but also the deleterious effect. I think the community really needs to look at our history, examine it, and we need to strongly say, ‘We were wrong,’” North said. “I guess it depends on what the board actually does, but I remain an optimist.”

Professor North plans to release a letter on the behalf of Occidental faculty, staff and administration publicly calling for the revocation of Popenoe’s degree.

Emily Zepeda (first year) is a juror on the Associated Students of Occidental College (ASOC) Honor Board. Zepeda said that discovering Popenoe’s honorary degree and the Townsend Crosthwaite blackface photo incident have made her uncomfortable as a student in recent weeks. However, Zepeda said she believes there is a chance for Occidental to learn from its mistakes.

“We need to be able to look back and criticize where we went wrong, but then also constructively move on from there,” Zepeda said. “Revoking this degree and renaming the pool, things like that, those are all very possible things that could get done, and I don’t see why anyone would not want them to happen. These are all very feasible steps that can be taken towards progress.”

ASOC president Jacques Lesure recently established the ASOC Direct Action Committee in response to these recent events, according to Zepeda. Both the renaming of the Townsend Crosthwaite pool and the revocation of Popenoe’s degree are among the Direct Action Committee’s demands for Spring 2019.

Professor Thalia González is a Politics professor who specializes in restorative justice.

“It concerns me — and this is true of Occidental and I think this is true of a lot of colleges and universities — that there hasn’t been attention and focus on the larger historical context of higher education in perpetuating violence in a whole spectrum of ways,” González said.

Identifying how colleges and universities have both benefited from and contributed to ideologies that have resulted in genocidal actions is essential to understanding the issue at hand, according to González.

“To have an institution ignore that they not only honored that individual once, but twice, is not only problematic, but it raises fundamental questions about whether there is an alignment with your mission that you put out to the world and then the values and principles that you adhere to and that you ask your faculty, students and staff to adhere to,” González said.

The current relevance of this issue is that institutions perpetuate the ideas that have fueled and continue to fuel violence in many ways, according to González.

“Eugenics is founded in white supremacy and upholding white privilege,” González said. “We just saw a white supremacist mass atrocity committed in New Zealand. In no way is this just a historic legacy, in no way is the language of eugenics something that doesn’t exist in a contemporary reality, and I think we need to be attentive to that. By continuing to honor someone that held those views, you’re not just continuing to honor a legacy in the past. That is a legacy that is being invoked on a daily basis through redirect of hate.”

Brian Clearwater is a professor of religious studies who focuses on religion, race and law in Native American and Indigenous studies. Many of the ideas fundamental to eugenics still affect public thought today, according to Clearwater.

“Eugenics affected popular thought in the U.S. and around the world,” Clearwater said. “Even though the science of eugenics has been widely discredited, some of the underlying assumptions or beliefs persist in our popular discourse and in our political discourse, and that language is extremely dangerous.”

Occidental has an obligation to use its voice for positive change, according to Clearwater.

“Many of the victims of eugenics did not have a voice to resist that discourse, so the power that Occidental has to intervene in that discourse is valuable,” Clearwater said. “I think it would be important to not just rescind the degree but also to issue a statement about why. We have an opportunity to intervene in that discourse. It would be a step in the right direction to confront our own complicity in the past.”

As Occidental’s students, faculty, staff and administration continue to condemn Popenoe’s theories and research, the ultimate decision to rescind the honorary degree will rest with the board of trustees, according to North.

“If Oxy chooses not to rescind his degree, they are saying, in no uncertain terms, that this individual still represents the college,” González said. “And if that’s the case, I think there are many people at this college who will say, ‘That is in direct conflict with not just who I am personally, but also who I am professionally.’”