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  • Writer's pictureVictor Omojola

What’s in a Name

Updated: Dec 20, 2021

Inside the push to rename the tallest building at Teachers College.

By Victor Omojola

A psychologist and authority on childhood development, Edmund Gordon has spent his career developing strategies to improve the American education system, especially for underprivileged students. As a Columbia educator, he’s been titled Richard March Hoe Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Education at Teachers College. As the author of no fewer than 18 books, he is a key figure in scholarly discussions on the achievement gap and supplementary education. As a policymaker, he is a founder of the public preschool program Head Start.

Along with his lengthy title at TC, Gordon is the school’s founding director of the Institute of Urban and Minority Education (IUME) as well as the John M. Musser Professor of Psychology, Emeritus at Yale University. In 2003, the New York Times called him “the premier black psychologist of his generation.”

Gordon was just nine years old when white supremacist, eugenicist, and Columbia professor Edward Thorndike argued in Human Learning that “we have much to learn about eugenics, but even now we know enough to urge us to provide the intellect of man with higher and purer sources than the muddy streams of the past.” Born in 1921 in the small, segregated town of Goldsboro, North Carolina, Gordon faced firsthand the racism constructed and perpetuated by individuals like Thorndike in the field of education. By the mid-40s, he would, despite such barriers, graduate from Howard University with a bachelor’s degree and, roughly a decade later, from American University with a master’s. Gordon became Dr. Gordon in 1957 after obtaining his EdD in child development and guidance from TC—the same school where, beginning in 1899, Thorndike had spent his career teaching.

In the late 1960s, professors emeriti Frances Connor and Leonard Blackman obtained federal funding (as opposed to endowed funds) for the construction of a building bearing Thorndike’s name after his death in 1949. His name would be resurrected and embodied in a trademark TC Gothic-style brownstone on 121st and Broadway. Not that it ever really died: Despite his bigoted beliefs, Thorndike has remained one of the most-cited psychologists of the twentieth century. His law of effect and his work on the theory of connectionism remain tremendously influential. Popularly available biographical entries paint him as a field-defining psychologist, bearing no mention of his ties to eugenics.

A Dangerous Idea and a Case for Change

In her first email to me, Krystal Cruz, TC 22, began with an apology. Hard at work on her dissertation, she opted for voice dictation: “I have to conserve my energy just a little bit so apologies again for any typos.” This is an apt entry point into Cruz’s world: one of intense emotional exertion, unremittingly required of her since the spring of 2018.

It was then that Cruz, a pre-doctoral fellow in the Teachers College Department of Health and Behavior Studies, published the Thorndike Report: A Case for Change. The noncommissioned report is a scathing account of Thorndike’s less-celebrated views, paved over in his popular legacy. Its section headings, including “Nazism,” “Eugenics and Implicit Homophobia,” “Historically Persecuted Minorities,” and “Medical Apartheid,” paint a picture of a scholar who spent much of his career denouncing the twentieth-century expansion of rights for marginalized groups. His declaration that “women in general are thus by original nature submissive to men” opens a section cataloging the eugenicist’s “problematic statements.” The list, as noted at the beginning of the section, is non-exhaustive.

Illustration by Hazel Lu

The Thorndike Report declares that “in light of his strongly held convictions, it is time to rename the building bearing the name of Thorndike to the Dr. Edmund W. Gordon, Jr. Hall.” And indeed, as Cruz emphasized to me, the report was always meant to spur a two-phased project. “You remove the name and then rename,” she said. “Dr. Gordon’s work nullified what the eugenicist’s work was. It mitigated it.” According to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, naming the building after Gordon would make Columbia the third Ivy League institution, after Harvard and Princeton, to give such an honor to a Black person.

Cut to Feb. 27, 2018, a few months before the report’s publication. A screening of A Dangerous Idea: Eugenics, Genetics and the American Dream is being held at Schermerhorn Hall. Directed by Stephanie Welch and featuring commentary from Columbia professor of biological sciences Dr. Robert Pollack, the film traces the history of eugenics in the U.S. The Center for Science and Society’s Research Cluster for Science and Subjectivity, co-led by Pollack, sponsored the screening, which was free and open to the public. It’s here that we witness the genesis of Cruz’s project.

Among the eugenicists implicated in the film is Thorndike. After watching the documentary, Cruz told me, she immediately emailed her advisor, Dr. Barbara Wallace, alarmed by his continued memorialization at TC. As a university senator, Cruz felt that action was necessary. “There is something very scary and unacceptable,” she told Wallace, a professor of Health Education at TC and the school’s first-ever tenured African American woman professor, who encouraged Cruz to write and submit what would become the Report. The 23-page document, replete with detailed historical references and a rousing call to action, is bookended by Wallace’s forward and closing commentary. “For all the oppressed who have yearned for freedom,” Wallace writes at the report’s conclusion, “please see in the writing of Krystal Cruz the impetus for TC doing what is right at this time!”

The incipient raising of stakes indicated by Wallace’s panegyric tone shows that despite Cruz’s desire to focus the renaming project on Gordon’s worthiness of the honor, she, from an early stage, was placed right at the narrative’s center. It’s no wonder she’s eking out energy reserves by refraining from typing her emails, after the draining two years that followed.

A Burdensome Biennium and a Historic Vote

On April 30, 2020, Cruz submitted her report to former Provost Thomas James, who thanked her for it warmly the next day. Shortly thereafter, she was called into the office of Teachers College President Susan Fuhrman, where she was greeted by Chief of Staff Katie Conway. According to Cruz, Conway, who currently works in the Dean’s Office at Columbia Business School, told her that she had “done enough for the institution as university senator” and that it was time for her to “step down” from her position. Cruz had no intention of taking Conway’s directive.

Stunned, Cruz said nothing when Fuhrman walked in on their conversation and asked if everything was okay. “I was so shocked that I was in trouble that I couldn't even tell President Fuhrman what her chief of staff was doing to me,” she said. “So I told President Fuhrman, ‘Oh, don’t worry. Everything’s fine. Nothing, no problem at all.’”

Cruz made a point of distancing Fuhrman from Conway’s negative response that day, and from the discouragement of other TC administrators in the period that followed. She referred to the school’s then-president as “courageous” during her last Board of Trustees meeting on June 7 of that year, after which she assured Cruz that she had delivered her report to the board.

The two years that followed were less encouraging. Cruz said that after her meeting with Conway, she was soon made to appear in a formal hearing. By the summer, she was forced to resign as university senator. “They said, if I ever spoke up about this matter again, that I will have increased sanctions up until expulsion from the institution.”

Cruz explained that her mental health took a sharp decline. She developed an eating disorder, experienced suicidal ideation for the first time in her life, and, at one point, had to undergo partial hospitalization. “I was going to the recovery clinic as well as coming to classes in the evenings, and then sometimes getting extensions and having to enroll in the office of student accommodation services.” Cruz’s studies have been significantly disrupted as a result of the mental health issues sustained by the scenario. She was originally scheduled to have completed her degree in 2019. Still, she smiled as she confirmed her new graduation date. “Most likely, my oral defense will occur October 2022. So this time next year, I will be officially Dr. Cruz.”

Following “very strong encouragement” from Pollack, the original organizer of the 2018 Schermerhorn film screening, Cruz penned an email to President Bollinger on Nov. 23, 2020. In it, she explains that she was “traumatized and bullied,” by Conway; “sanctioned” under “false accusations” by TC’s Vice Provost for Student Affairs Thomas Rock; and “significantly disempowered and retaliated against” by Vice President of the school’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion Janice Robinson. She received no response.

But it was not just Cruz who was affected by the TC administration, she insisted. According to her, Rock effectively halted action from other students interested in the renaming cause. “The Vice Provost of Student Affairs was using me as the example and scaring all the student leaders, all the activist scholars of color, and all of the white allies of conscience,” she said.

The greater renaming project would have suffered even more, said Cruz, if not for the efforts of individuals like Pollack who continued “carrying the situation on main campus.” Likewise, Cruz told me that following the death of George Floyd at the end of May 2020, Wallace—her advisor—sent emails to President Bollinger, President Bailey, the entire TC Board of Trustees, and other key TC administrative figures for seventeen straight days, arguing for the removal of Thorndike’s name.

On July 15, against the backdrop of the country’s largest ever racial justice protests and in the face of sustained pressure from the brigade of devoted supporters Cruz had rallied, the TC Board of Trustees unanimously voted to remove Edward Thorndike’s name from the school’s tallest building. The building, situated just a block away from the Jewish Theological Seminary and the host of many of TC’s special-education-related programs, centers, and departments, would no longer bear the name of a eugenicist.

A Centennial Celebration and a Renewed Hope

Dr. Edmund Gordon is 100 years old.

To describe his list of accomplishments as impressive would be an understatement; to imply that he is finished would be presumptuous. “At a hundred, I’m not through. I still have some things I want to do,” he declared at the virtual E.W. Gordon Centennial Conference this past summer.

It was at this conference that Cruz was stunned to hear that the former Thorndike Hall would not be renamed in Gordon’s honor. Only IUME, which Gordon founded, would bear his name. “Everybody was shocked. We were all prepared to celebrate.”

So, on Nov. 2, 2021, Cruz decided to contact Gordon directly. In the email she wrote him, she makes a sobering plea, asking the professor for his approval in continuing to push for the building to be named after him. “If you do not tell us to stop advocating for this institutional change, I can also assure you that students will continue advocating for your name to be put on our campus building and never stop advocating until it ultimately occurs,” she wrote.

Gordon, due to reservations over advocating for his own benefit, initially hesitated and asked Cruz to take time to consult with his family. But he remembered that it was largely the protests of Columbia students in the late 1960s that eventually led to his appointment as the University’s first tenured professor of African American descent, and decided to give the go-ahead. On Nov. 4, he wrote the following in an email to Cruz:

“Dear Ms Cruz, I hope that you and your colleagues who favor the naming of a TC building on the Columbia University campus for me, Edmund W. Gordon, will stay your course!”

Gordon’s support for the cause suggests a real possibility of success. I spoke about this to Jeremy Wahl, GS ’23, who is on the University Senate and is co-chair of the Student Affairs Committee. A few weeks ago, after Cruz—whom he called “a force”—got in touch with him, he decided that working to name the building after Gordon was a worthwhile application of his power as a student representative. Between bites of a croissant and sips of red wine, he laid out his and the Senate’s approach to contributing to the renaming effort. Crucial to the success of the project, he explained, is simply publicizing the issue. He wants to see both graduate and undergraduate organizations declare solidarity with the cause. He also wants students to continue to circulate Cruz’s petition from July of last year.

Wahl asked me to “look around the cafe, go and ask that person, that person, that person, ‘Hey, what are your thoughts on the Thorndike Report?’” I did a quick 180 of Max Caffé, scrutinizing its clientele. He continued, “Do the same thing at John Jay or at your next class. And I just—I don’t think that people are going to know what that means. I don’t think that people know the issue.”

A day after we spoke, on Nov. 20, Columbia’s Interschool Governing Board—which Cruz currently co-chairs—voted unanimously to support the request to name Teachers College’s tallest campus building after Gordon. Cruz thinks it likely that very soon, perhaps by the time this piece is published, additional statements of support will emerge from councils and groups at Barnard College, TC, General Studies, and Columbia College. The hope is that these statements will then be submitted directly to Columbia and TC administrators, and ultimately to the TC Board of Trustees, who might complement their historic July 2020 vote to efface Thorndike’s name with a decision, at last, to honor Gordon’s.


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