Untold history: How Rufus von KleinSmid supported the eugenics movement at USC

The Von KleinSmid Center for International Relations stands tall with its distinct globed tower high above campus. Under the structure’s grand arches, more than 100 international flags drape over its walkways, representing the home countries of international students at the University.

The image of the building — emblematic of the University itself — is one of diversity and inclusion, but the Von KleinSmid Center is named after a president who carries a highly acclaimed, yet controversial legacy regarding just that. During his term as a University administrator, Von KleinSmid involved himself in the field of eugenics, a growing social science movement popularized in the early 20th century that encouraged reproduction of desirable traits, generally among whites, while discouraging reproduction in people with negative traits, particularly the poor, ethnic minorities and those deemed intellectually inferior.

Von KleinSmid accomplished much that is familiar to the Trojan legacy, such as creating significant scholarship programs, expanding campus land and increasing the University’s population.

His presidency, which spanned from 1921 to 1947, occurred during a period of great political, social and technological change — throughout the Great Depression and World War II.

When the eugenics movement began taking root in the 1920s, USC was not exempt from the elite educational institutions that supported it.

“[The field] was mainstream enough to be embraced by a wide array of scientists and experts and reformers who saw it as a way to solve social problems, like immigration and industrialization, that was shaping modern America,” said Alexandra Stern, a professor at the University of Michigan whose research specializes in the history of eugenics, society and justice.

Von KleinSmid’s scholarship went hand-in-hand with those of other senior-level administrators from schools like the California Institute of Technology, Stanford University, UC Berkeley and UCLA, according to Stern. Von KleinSmid published “Eugenics and the State,” and the publication was presented to the Cincinnati Academy of Medicine in 1913 — eight years before the start of his term as USC’s president. It called for states to preserve their society through segregation of inferior groups and forced sterilization.

“A third method of handling the problem is suggested, namely, sterilization,” Von KleinSmid wrote. “We must all agree that those who, in the nature of the case, can do little else than pass on to their offsprings the defects which make themselves burdens to society, have no ethical right to parenthood.”

Von KleinSmid was a proponent of sterilization as an aspect of the eugenics movement since its inception.

“Clearly, [Von KleinSmid] was [involved] since the emergence of the eugenics movement, specifically with the push for sterilization,” Stern said.

While serving as president, Von KleinSmid, alongside other USC administrators and professors, donated to or were members of regional and national eugenic groups. These groups invested in research and education to influence sterilization policies in California, since the state’s first law which allowed sterilization in 1909.

“It’s safe to say that USC leaders played an active role in the eugenics movement,” Stern said of the period during Von KleinSmid’s presidency.

Stern also acknowledged that eugenics was especially popular among upper intellectual circles, as it transitioned from a fringe scientific movement to a mainstream field.

During his presidency, Von KleinSmid co-founded the Human Betterment Foundation in 1928, a Pasadena-based think thank that promoted compulsory sterilization internationally as a mechanism for improving civilization. According to Kirsten Spicer in “A Nation of Imbeciles,” a 2015 paper published in the Chapman Historical Review, members of the HBF influenced Nazi Germany’s eugenics-based ideology through connections with top German intellectuals and officials.

However, Von KleinSmid’s ties to the HBF were not the only USC-related connection to eugenics. According to documents from the Human Betterment Foundation, two USC sociology professors, Emory Bogardus and Kingsley Davis, were registered members, while other staff members and administrators were linked to the American Eugenics Society, a national eugenics group.

According to Stern, some sociology and social work students at USC were also trained with a eugenics-inspired framework in their curriculum, which was popularized in the 1920s to 1940s as the national movement grew.

“USC trained people in social work programs to conduct studies that…operated in the eugenics framework with inferior and superior demographics,” Stern said. She also said the faculty who supported this curriculum were interested in social issues of the time, like immigration and the creation of a healthier, fitter society.

When asked for comment, USC Provost Michael Quick responded by emphasizing the University’s need to continually press on toward a more inclusive environment and to engage in thoughtful discussion on these issues.

However, the movement and the HBF’s popularity among intellectuals declined in the 1930s with increased opposition to Germany’s racist and religious policies, according to Spicer.

Still president during this tumultuous, historical time, Von KleinSmid denounced Germany’s policies upon returning from a trip to Europe.

“The edicts against the Jews in Germany are as terrible as they can be,” Von KleinSmid said in a memo sent from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “This non-Aryan persecution affects even the higher institutions of learning and the program is rigorous almost beyond expression.” The memo noted that his statement was surprising, due to the HBF’s ties with German officials.

However, the eugenicist agenda lingered until 1979, when California repealed its sterilization law. From 1909 until 1979, California performed approximately 20,000 forced sterilizations on its citizens. Madrigal v. Quilligan, a controversial lawsuit, arose out of 10 sterilizations of Latina women at the Los Angeles County/University of Southern California Hospital in the early 1970s.

Although administrative officials did not play a part in the doctoral decisions that unwillfully sterilized the Latina women represented, these events harken back to the ideologies of the time. The Madrigal case ruled in favor of the doctors at the hospital.

Von KleinSmid’s contributions to the University’s history is multifaceted and complex: It is one full of accomplishments, but also of controversial ideologies that conflict with USC’s present message of diversity and inclusion.

“Under Von KleinSmid, there was a lot of growth, which included the establishment of additional professional schools and colleges and the expansion of the student body and the physical campus that is USC today,” said Claude Zachary, the University Archivist.

According to documents from the University archives, during Von KleinSmid’s administration, USC expanded from eight colleges to 26, with the creation of a school for international relations and development of the first cinematic arts school in the U.S.

The University became nationally accredited and expanded its international outreach, with international students comprising 10 percent of the student body. Von KleinSmid also developed a scholarship program for foreign students who were to return to their homes after their studies and implement their skills to better their countries.

Despite his accomplishments as an internationalist, there was historical evidence of Von KleinSmid’s hostility toward Japanese Americans. In a book titled From Concentration Camp to Campus: Japanese American Students and World War II, Von KleinSmid was described as “openly hostile” to Japanese American students and denied their requested transcripts in the aftermath of the war.  

In 1946, Von KleinSmid stepped down as president to become chancellor of USC, a role that he would take on until his death on July 9, 1964. In 1966, the Von KleinSmid Center for International and Public Affairs was dedicated to the former president.

Von KleinSmid was a prominent intellectual figure who held a variety of viewpoints across his lifetime. Von KleinSmid’s leadership helped shape USC’s present-day image through various educational and structural developments, and while he is remembered as an internationalist and an influential educator, his history as a eugenicist and a co-founder of the Human Betterment Foundation still exists to reflect contentious ideologies.

“With every generation, there is a need to recommit to the ideals of what it means to live in a democracy, what it means to enact equality and what it means to be an engaged citizen,” Quick said in an email to the Daily Trojan. “Such actions bring us a little closer to the ideals we all envision, as the standards for what is acceptable and what is no longer tolerable evolve … USC must grapple with these issues as well, but we should do so in a way that all universities should — with an examination of the facts, with thoughtful reflection and with rigorous debate. And, most importantly, with a commitment to fundamental values — we stand against hate and racism; we stand for inclusion, respect and the appreciation of differences.”


This article has been updated to include the correct dates of President von KleinSmid’s death and the dedication of the VKC building. A previous version stated that von KleinSmid died in 1955, and the building was dedicated two decades later. The Daily Trojan regrets this error.