Environmental college examines the legacy of a name

Some students and faculty question the appropriateness of calling themselves Huxley College of the Environment


MAY 10, 2021 — The Huxley College of the Environment has become the center of controversy after some students and faculty members claimed to have found evidence that the school’s namesake, Thomas Huxley, was a major contributor to scientific racism. Now those students want to see the Huxley name removed.

Thomas Huxley was a 19th-century British scientist known for his work in comparative anatomy. His work is highly regarded among biologists and anthropologists, but was accused by a group of Western students in the spring of expressing racist sentiments.

Huxley College of the Environment

A group of students began investigating Huxley’s work last spring and encouraged others at Western to stop using the Huxley name in reference to the school and simply refer to it as the “College of the Environment” instead. It wasn’t until the Black Student Organization released their list of demands in June of 2020 that official steps were taken to examine whether the name should be changed.

Among the many demands in the B.S.O.’s list was the statement, “Rename Huxley College, and rename campus buildings to honor important figures in Black History.”

Laura Wagner, a junior studying Chinese and environmental science and one of the current Huxley College senators, decided to make the name change a main focus of her campaign for the position after reading the list of demands.

“The more I researched, the more I realized he’s not a great representation of modern values and what we realize now is unacceptable,” Wagner said.

Wagner and her co-senator, Francis Neff, a junior at Western studying environmental science and political science, have both made the name change their top priority this year as leaders at the college. Together they represent the student body on the Legacy Review Task Force, which was formed in response to the B.S.O. list of demands.

“The charge of the task force is to specifically investigate the significance of building names at Western, with an emphasis on the Huxley College name,” Wagner said.

As well as working on the task force, Wagner published an op-ed about the name change on Western’s AS Review website on Jan. 22, 2021 where she shared the evidence of Huxley’s racism that she had found.

One of the pieces that Wagner referenced was a quote from Huxley in an 1865 essay, entitled Emancipation: Black and White, which said, “It may be quite true that some negroes are better than some white men; but no rational man, cognizant of the facts, believes that the average negro is the equal, still less the superior, of the average white man.”

Wagner also referenced an image from a 2015 lecture given by Nicolaas Rupke, a professor of history at Washington and Lee University, entitled Huxley’s Rule and the Origins of Scientific Racism, where the black man is depicted as being more closely related to a gorilla than to the European white man.

Zarea Lavalais, who was elected as the associated students vice president for sustainability in January of this year, also expressed concern over the image and what it means to have Huxley representing one of the colleges at Western.

“His belief of higher and lower races should have been a discussion when his name was put on the building,” Lavalais said.

William Dietrich, a former professor in the Environmental Journalism program at Western Washington University and author of Green Fire, a book on the history of Huxley College, said that this image is a racial diagram from German scholar Ernst Haeckel, not Thomas Huxley.

“Huxley did not hold these views, many of which originated after his retirement in 1885 and death in 1895. I find it unfortunate that the article attacking Huxley used a Haeckel racial diagram that Huxley had nothing to do with,” Dietrich said.

Dietrich said that he does not believe that Huxley’s work exhibits “blatant scientific racism” as was said by Wagner in her op-ed.

Another major concern regarding the potential name change is that the Huxley name represents one of the oldest and most significant environmental colleges in the country, and it would be harmful to the school’s reputation to undergo a name change.

“I think the college has established a national reputation under the Huxley name and it would be a shame to lose that branding,” Dietrich said.

Wagner, however, doesn’t believe that nostalgia for a name should prevent progressive change from occurring.

“A heartwarming memory to one person could be the source of grief or feeling ignored for another person today,” Wagner said.

The task force will be presenting their recommendation to President Randhawa and the Board of Trustees before May 31 as to what steps they believe should be taken in regard to the name of the college.