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Opinion | Beyond a name, beyond the individual

Evaluating the legacy of Huxley and the future for environmental students at Western

A picture of Thomas Henry Huxley fades out over a photo of Western's college of the environment. Editorial illustration by Nate Sanford, photo by Cameron Baird

This piece was submitted to The Front by faculty who will form the new Environmental Studies program in Fall 2021.

This year, Western Washington University's President, Sabah Randhawa, has charged the Legacy Task Force with reviewing names on campus, especially the name of Huxley College of the Environment. This review comes after a year of protest and renewed focus on racial injustice following the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many others. The review also comes as a direct response to Western’s Black Student Organization’s list of formal demands.  

The Legacy Task Force asked four scholars and biographers to evaluate the legacy of Thomas Henry Huxley, the college’s namesake. Huxley (1825-1895) was a British scientist and contemporary of Charles Darwin who published widely in the fields of zoology and comparative anatomy. He garnered the nickname “Darwin’s Bulldog” for vigorously and publicly defending evolution. University researchers believe the Huxley name was casually chosen for the college because Huxley advocated that humans were a part of nature, not apart from it. 

When the four scholars and biographers reviewed Huxley’s legacy, much of their responses centered on whether Huxley’s statements about race and gender made him a model abolitionist, a man of his times or an innovator of ideas that many of us would find reprehensible now. These include ideas of innate or “natural” inequality and claims that so-called “lower races” were closer to other primates than other humans. Though not directly addressed by all four scholars, other ideas of relevance include Huxley’s pronouncement that humans could never overharvest the oceans.  

We encourage the Western community to read all of the scholars and biographers’ reports on Huxley’s legacy. They reflect a range of perspectives and come to different conclusions. As such, they have done a great service to our community. They have helped many of us better understand, perhaps some for the first time, a period of history when influential ideas about science, religion, race and inequality were being formulated, debated and rationalized. Many of those ideas have persisted and evolved, shaping our lives today.  

We believe discussions about the Huxley name provide an opportunity to live out our commitment to co-learning and anti-racist work. 

Understanding Huxley’s legacy is not easy, not least because of his laudable contributions in other areas. He vocally supported broad access to public education and championed the importance of scientific inquiry. Yet, some of his writings and speeches on social issues, especially on race and gender, lead to legitimate questions about what historical ideas an individual should receive credit or blame for and what standard should be used in judging historical figures. Those details are worthy of discussion and debate. 

Also worthy of reflection are how a person’s social position and beliefs shape the focus of scientific inquiry, past and present. But, perhaps this focus on judging an individual misses other important questions. 

T. H. Huxley was indeed a man of his times – Victorian England at the height of the British Empire. The era’s scientific community, of which Huxley was a key member, was central to a political culture which sought to master the world, both territorially and intellectually. Scientific knowledge deployed by empire enabled the appropriation of other peoples, their lands and their resources, powerfully shaping the world we know today. We need to ask, then, whether the implicit celebration of imperial culture in the college’s name serves a meaningful role as we strive to transform into the diverse learning community we aspire to be.  

More broadly, can any one person reflect all the diverse ways of knowing and relating to the environment that we want to support in our college? Would removing the link to a specific individual and specific time in history better support our commitment to creating a more inclusive college culture? We believe it would.  

We appreciate the reflection and conversations that have been sparked this year. We believe that none of us has the one correct answer; through engagement across difference we will get closer to solutions that work and not just for those in positions of power. We also aspire to be more than the confines this name — and this naming debate — have to offer.  

Taking student and faculty concerns, Huxley’s own words and the afore-mentioned scholars into consideration, we support the change in the college’s name and welcome the benefits that would follow. 

Authors:

  • Dr. Rebekah Paci-Green, Environmental Studies incoming Department Chair
  • Zander Albertson, Environmental Studies Department
  • Dr. Andy Bach, Environmental Studies Department
  • Dr. Kate Darby, Environmental Studies Department
  • Dr. Aquila Flower, Environmental Studies Department
  • Stefan Freelan, Environmental Studies Department
  • Dr. Nini Hayes, Environmental Studies Department
  • Dr. Michael Medler, Environmental Studies Department
  • Dr. Gene Myers, Environmental Studies Department
  • Dr. Mark Neff, Environmental Studies Department
  • Dr. David Rossiter, Environmental Studies Department
  • Dr. Nick Stanger, Environmental Studies Department

Other signatories:

  • Dr. Froylan Sifuentes, Environmental Science Department
  • Dr. Jean Melious, J.D., future UEPP and Huxley Dean, September 2021-Summer 2022
  • Dr. Charles Barnhart, Environmental Science Department
  • Dr. Nick Zaferatos, future Urban and Environmental Planning and Policy Department
  • Dr. Manuel Montano, Environmental Science Department
  • Phaedra Beckert, Director of Development, Huxley College of the Environment 
  • Linda Luttrell, Operations Manager, Huxley College of the Environment
  • Dr. James Miller, future Urban and Environmental Planning and Policy Department
  • Dr. David Wallin, Environmental Science Department

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