The following letter has been issued by the outgoing and Summer chair of the Berkeley Physics Department. Public comments may be submitted to this page published by The Office of the Chancellor.
Dear Berkeley Physics Community,
We write today with an important message. Last week, UC Berkeley’s Building Name Review Committee announced that it was considering a proposal to “un-name” LeConte Hall, both old and new. This announcement came in answer to an overwhelming resolution by the physics faculty for such action. The proposal, made officially to Chancellor Christ, for LeConte Hall has been posted on the Building Name Review Committee’s website, along with proposals for Barrows and Kroeber Halls, and comments on the proposal are welcomed. If the Committee agrees with the proposal, it will make a recommendation to the Chancellor who makes a recommendation to the President. The President has decision-rights over the removal of the name.
In recent years, it has come to light that the LeConte name is inextricably associated with slavery and racism, and therefore does not reflect the values of the university or our department. Student groups on Berkeley’s campus, most notably the Black Student Union, have long been concerned that prominent university buildings are named after slaveholders, and many physics students are active in supporting constructive change in the department, as are the staff. The voices of physics students and staff rang out loudly and clearly in favor of this renaming, and what they said mattered enormously to the faculty as they took their vote. Our collective resolution recognizes the importance of addressing racism and racial inequities within the scientific community as one part of our effort to build a welcoming and supportive environment for students, faculty and staff of color.
LeConte Hall was named in honor of the brothers John and Joseph LeConte. Physicist John LeConte was the first Berkeley faculty member, first acting President of UC Berkeley, and third President. Naturalist Joseph LeConte, who followed his brother to Berkeley, was a distinguished scientist and early proponent of evolution, who joined John Muir in cofounding the Sierra Club.
The LeConte brothers were raised on their father’s Georgia plantation, an enterprise that held 231 slaves, and which they inherited prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. Both brothers served for the Confederacy, thereby supporting slavery. Later Joseph went on to espouse extreme racism, including support for the theories of Louis Agassiz. An important factor in our decision to rename LeConte Hall was Joseph’s gross misuse of science to create arguments that led to the repression of African Americans and the denial of their rights. The retention of the LeConte name on our Physics building would associate our field with these beliefs and actions.
The move to rename LeConte Hall is consistent with the university’s commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion. This university has a long tradition of serving citizens of California and the world, offering equitable education, access to all, and opportunities that transcend race or class. These aims cannot be fully expressed or achieved if the Physics buildings honor those in the past who sought to discriminate against and eliminate opportunities for people of color.
We in Berkeley’s Physics Department have always held ourselves to the highest standards. Scientific inquiry is at its pinnacle when undertaken with principled ethics, high standards of social responsibility, and diversity among those who contribute to it. Our work strives to serve humanity, and we believe that this must be reflected in every aspect of our lives on Berkeley’s campus.
We want you to be aware of this important proposal, which represents a crucial step forward. It is one of many ways we intend to make good on our pledge to increase access and support for underrepresented students, recruit a more diverse faculty and student body, and facilitate equitable educational and career outcomes.
Giving new names to old and new LeConte Halls will be separate processes, and we look forward to sharing those names with you in the future. Thank you for being an integral part of the Berkeley physics community of researchers, teachers, staff, students, alumni, donors, and friends.
Wick Haxton, outgoing chair
Jonathan Wurtele, Summer chair
P.S. The Physics Department’s faculty and staff have recently created and donated to a fund specifically for supporting our underrepresented students. We invite you to do the same. Click here to learn more.