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Verde Magazine

Verde Magazine

Verde Magazine

Updating Palo Alto: A Movement to Rename Jordan Middle School


Within hours of Gunn graduate Nilmini Rubin’s birth in 1972, her mother’s life was irreparably changed. That night, the doctor declared that the world ‘didn’t need more colored babies,’ and forcefully sterilized her mother, an immigrant from Sri Lanka, according to Rubin. Since Rubin’s father was not allowed to stay overnight in the ward, her mother, who had just given birth to her first child, was unable to resist this procedure.

When Rubin was in the first grade, her family moved to Palo Alto and she attended Hoover Elementary School, part of the Palo Alto Unified School District. In the same district are David Starr Jordan Middle School, Terman Middle School and Cubberley Community Center, all named after prominent figures in the eugenics movement who laid the groundwork for sterilizations of thousands of people with disabilities and people of color during the 20th century. According to Rubin, who has become an advocate for reparations, over 63,000 people in 32 states were sterilized, one third of whom were in California.

During her time in Palo Alto, Rubin’s mother found out that students in PAUSD went to schools that were named after men who would have supported her sterilization.

“[She felt] disappointment that no one cared enough to change it.,” Rubin says. “And then it became denial, like, ‘Oh maybe they don’t know.”’

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There are students that are going to Jordan that, according to David Starr Jordan, shouldn’t have been in the school. Letitia Burton, Living Skills Teacher

While many people may remain unaware of this history, that is all beginning to change. Last year, Kobi Johnsson, then a seventh grader at Jordan, did a school project on David Starr Jordan. He was shocked to find that Jordan, the first president of Stanford University, was also one of the most prominent eugenicists of the early 20th century. Upon learning this from his son, his father,  Lars Johnsson, began doing his own research.

“I got motivated to do my own research into … David Starr Jordan, just to make sure that there weren’t any other accomplishments that outweigh the downsides,” Johnsson says. “The more I looked, the worse it got.”

To Johnsson and many like-minded Palo Altans, that eugenicist ideology is in  conflict with the diverse population of the Palo Alto community.

“We are sending a school population into that school every day that is 50 percent non-white,” Johnsson says. “He would say that ‘Because they’re non-white, they’re not smart. Education and opportunity does nothing to change intellectual capability.’”

After learning of Jordan’s eugenicist views, Johnsson created a petition on that garnered over 300 signatures. In January 2016, he presented the petition to the  Palo Alto school board. At the meeting, Johnsson explained his case, which included a letter from Rubin advocating for changing the name. The board unanimously decided to create a committee to look into his proposal.

Changing school names due to problematic namesakes is not something unique to Palo Alto. Princeton University is considering renaming its Woodrow Wilson School of International Affairs due to Wilson’s segregationist views, and Amherst College has stated that it is no longer named after of Lord Jeffrey Amherst, who is well known for advocating the genocide of Native Americans, and is instead named after the town Amherst where the school is located.

If the Jordan campaign is successful, Palo Alto will become one of the many places that has decided that the negative actions of its founding figures loom so large that they do not want to be associated with them anymore.

The Campaign to Rename

Letitia Burton, a Palo Alto High School Living Skills teacher, did her own research on Jordan when she first began working at PAUSD.

“He believed in keeping white people white, and keeping wealthy people wealthy, and structuring society in such a way that the gene pool wasn’t tainted,” Burton says.

Accusations against Jordan even go so far as to assert that he covered up the murder of Jane Lathrop Stanford.

Despite the controversy, Jordan’s connections to Palo Alto and Stanford University were strong enough that, in 1937, a middle school was named after him.

Although the school renaming campaign is focused on Jordan, board members are also concerned about the namesakes of Terman and Cubberley. Lewis Terman is well known as one of the first proponents of IQ tests, which categorized individuals as inferior on the basis of intelligence. While his most famous studies relate to “genius” children, he also did many studies on those who he deemed “stupid,” or below average.

“He [Terman] applied IQ tests with great rigor to provide the scientific underpinnings for classifying people as smart or stupid,” Johnsson says.

While Johnsson is behind the newest campaign, his movement to change the name is by no means the first attempt. In 2008, Suz Antink, then a math teacher at Paly, wrote a letter to the board proposing that it look into changing the names of Terman, Cubberley and Jordan, claiming that naming schools after these men actsed against the educational goals of the school district.

“I believe that our current struggle to encourage and support students successfully reaching their ambitions is somewhat hampered by the legacy left by their national design and its implementation,” Antink stated in her letter to the board in 2008.

However, according to Antink, former Supt. Kevin Skelly urged her to retract her letter because he felt that the Board of Education members should focus on the financial issues the district was facing at the time.

“I didn’t take it back, but I did agree to let the idea move to the background,” Antink says today. “I reread my letter and I think that my views are the same.”

Debate Over the Name

For Paly senior Zach Segal, the campaign to change the school’s name is needlessly digging up relics of the past.

“I think that it’s already got a name,” Segal says. “We really can’t judge people back then by today’s standard.”

Burton, however, disagrees with arguments like Segal’s.

“Do we hold onto something because it is the tradition?” Burton asks. “Or do we say that maybe it’s time to put this tradition to rest and start something new?”

Burton says that the name should be changed, both for Palo Alto’s reputation as well as for the sake of the students attending the schools.

“When you think about it, there are students that are going to Jordan that, according to David Starr Jordan, shouldn’t have been in the school,” Burton says.

However, Johnsson does acknowledge that there may be some financial drawbacks that come with changing the name, another aspect that the commitee will examine.

“We need to look at if this is a spending priority,” Johnsson says. “Which other things will we not be able to do in the school district if this is a costly affair?”

Beyond those financial concerns, neither Burton nor Johnsson claim to see any reason to leave the name as it is. In contrast to the vocal few who hold strong beliefs, many students are ambivalent, probably due to a lack of awareness of the issue, according to Johnsson. Multiple Paly students who have gone to Jordan admit that, beyond having heard about Jordan’s racism from this campaign, they know very little about him.

Over the course of the campaign, Johnson has noticed patterns in the feedback he recieves.

“I get a lot of pushback that softens up considerably after I sit down with people and play ping pong on the facts,” Johnsson says. “They don’t feel so good about Jordan once they know [what he believed].”

To Johnsson, now that this issue has been brought to light, it must be dealt with immediately.

“Now that we know, we cannot not act,” Johnsson says.  “If we don’t act, we endorse the name, and with the name we endorse the legacy.”

Looking to the Future

Burton says that changing the name is an important step for the Palo Alto community to take.

“We keep talking about changing the narrative of our schools and our community,” Burton says. “In terms of the narrative of Palo Alto, wouldn’t it be wonderful to have this social justice narrative?”

In her letter to the board, Antink brought up several potential candidates who she says would make strong replacements for the current school names. Among those names are Henry Page, former PAUSD principal of Adult Education, and Dr. Sally Herriott, a former Paly math teacher.

Johnsson, on the other hand, has avoided advocating for specific names.

“I am staying away from this because I do not have an agenda,” Johnsson says. “I can only imagine that whatever name the committee comes up with that the board ends up approving will be better than what we have today.”

When Rubin attended Wilbur Middle School, she was a student representative on the board committee that chose the name of Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School. Looking back at her experience choosing a name, Rubin suggests that the current board uses a similar process to choose the new name.

“We had a really robust discussion about what our town wanted to honor,” Rubin says. “I imagine that they could just do the same process that we did back then, and then figure out who really changed our town for the better.”

As deliberations about the name continue, and tensions may rise, Rubin cautions that this debate is not simply one between an “old” and a “new” Palo Alto.

“I really feel that this is something that has been a lingering problem,” Rubin says. “It is kind of taking people with different ideas to realize this can’t stand . . . This is not introducing something new, and it has been wrong for a long time.”

For everyone invested in changing the name, the biggest priority is simply that the name is changed.

“If you choose not to make a choice, then that’s a statement,” Burton says. “You’re in complicit agreement with what was there before.”   

Conspiracy: Who Killed Jane Lathrop Stanford?

In February 1905, Jane Lathrop Stanford, then the controller of the Stanford Board of Trustees, went on vacation to Hawaii. According to Lars Johnsson, the leader of the campaign to rename Jordan, she was in an argument with Jordan about the expansion of Stanford campus, which he did not think was necessary.

On Feb. 28, Stanford asked her secretary for a soda, according to an 2003 article published in Stanford Alumni Magazine. Late that night, she awoke in pain and, according to reports by her secretary and doctor, as she died, she called out that she thought she had been poisoned.

Immediately upon hearing the news of Stanford’s death, David Starr Jordan sailed with a physician he hired to Hawaii, where he pronounced Stanford to have died of heart trouble. Because of Jordan’s reputation, this claim was accepted, despite the fact that an earlier doctor’s report had claimed evidence of poisoning as well.

“He could have had the best interest of the school in mind, wanting to avoid controversy,” Johnsson says.  “He may also have had more sinister motivation.”

Since everyone involved is dead, it is impossible to know what truly happened, so for Johnsson, it is irrelevant to his campaign.

“I believe it’s a rumor and will forever stay a rumor,” Johnsson says. “I am staying away from my official reasoning in saying that the school should  be renamed.”

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