Discolored rocks and scratched-out lettering are the sole remnants of what was formerly known as the Von KleinSmid Center, marking the end of a more than five-year battle by students of color to rename the building memorializing USC’s fifth president, a known eugenicist. But it is also just the beginning for many community members, who see the change in nomenclature as a small step in USC’s long-overdue confrontation with structural racism.
The renaming of what is now temporarily known as The Center for International and Public Affairs came amid nationwide protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, including one held in early June on campus, and student petitions seeking accountability and action from University administration.
Rising senior Jephtha Prempeh, who is majoring in nongovernmental organizations and social change, has been an integral part of renewing efforts to rename the building and spearheading the final push in presenting the issue to President Carol Folt. After starting a petition that demanded the president and administration acknowledge the fight against anti-Blackness, Prempeh met with fellow activists and the president on direct action that should be taken — the culmination of the years of student activism that came before them.
Creative Experience co-director Prempeh said Folt started working on the name change months ago, although the issue of VKC nomenclature had been a focal point for student activism years before they began their studies at USC. Prempeh said they believe their meeting with the president re-emphasized how important the renaming of VKC was to the student body. This petition, along with the culmination of student activism at USC and across the country, finally led to its passage, they said.
“I don’t think that it was my meeting by any means, but I do think that having that meeting really outlined to Dr. Folt how pressing of an issue this was to the student body,” Prempeh said. “I think it was probably a jarring moment to see that in a moment of like Black pain that the first thing that the student organizers are going to bring to her is the naming of the building … Our meeting gave her kind of the impetus to take that finalized … to see that through to its end.”
Jacob Pettis, a rising senior majoring in media arts and practice, said he remembers student activists seeking this change since his freshman year. Although grateful for Folt’s decision, Pettis said he feels the decision was long delayed.
“We’ve been advocating for this since my freshman year in 2017, and people were advocating for this even before I got to USC,” Pettis said. “The fact that it took this long is disheartening.”
Preston Fregia, a USC alumnus and former Undergraduate Student Government senator, said he and his peers drafted a resolution to create a task force of students and faculty that would consider the renaming of certain buildings on campus, including VKC. The Senate passed the resolution in 2018, with the drafting students facing immense opposition and death threats, and former Provost Michael Quick announced the creation of the Provost Task Force on University Nomenclature nearly a year later. Following the task force’s creation, USC administration did not reach a definitive decision regarding the name change for more than a year.
Students initially approached the resolution through compromise and debate in hopes it would make administration more responsive, Fregia said. In a previous Daily Trojan article, former USG Sen. and presidential candidate Michaela Murphy said the resolution was meant to open up dialogue between administration and USG regarding the renaming. Murphy, along with former Sen. Noah Silver and Fregia, noted that the resolution did not call for specific action in renaming, but would establish the task force to discuss nomenclature.
“The most important aspect of this resolution is that this is now the student body taking a stand,” Fregia said to the Daily Trojan in 2018. “I think that what everyone can do going forward is organize groups that can go and make rallies, sign petitions, and keep this grassroots movements alive.”
Fregia said although he believes the resolution he and his peers passed laid a foundation for the administration’s recent decision to rename VKC, he believes USC often utilizes task forces and committees to cause initiatives to lose momentum.
“I do think that the administration does pursue things and makes task forces and wants you to get into a kind of compromised mindset because … they want people, the activists that are doing all this, to graduate and then slow down,” Fregia said. “They want to slow down the pace of change.”
Resistance to the name change also rose from a belief that renaming the building would erase history, according to Pettis. In her email sent out last week, Folt stated that von Kleinsmid had advanced research and academia in his field.
“He expanded research, academic programs, and curriculum in international relations,” Folt said in the email. “But, he was also an active supporter of eugenics and his writings on the subject are at direct odds with USC’s multicultural community and our mission of diversity and inclusion.”
While creating recommendations to the USC administration on the process for renaming a controversial building, Paula Cannon, who co-chairs the nomenclature task force along with Vice President of Student Affairs Winston Crisp, said the group commented on the significance of a name’s intention — whether the decision was made under a donor’s wishes or to commemorate an honored University member.
“We’re a very diverse community, and a name that somebody may find offensive somebody else may find is an important part of history … VKC, I think, is a bit of an outlier at the University in that I have not come across anybody who has advocated for that name to remain on that permanent building [on campus],” Cannon said. “But you can imagine the future, where reasonable people can have different opinions and so that lends itself to requiring that there is a process in place whereby a committee can be established with broad representation across the University communities.”
Despite von KleinSmid’s financial and administrative contributions to the University, Robert English, associate professor of international relations and former director of the School of International Relations, said he believes that von Kleinsmid’s racist stances negate the value of memorializing his name on campus.
“He [held and espoused] views that are not only repugnant in hindsight from today’s perspective, but that were repugnant and inappropriate in their time,” English said. “Racism and, even worse, policies of eugenics and biological, as well as political discrimination, are abhorrent. So, I think it’s long overdue that his name be removed from our premier building that houses international relations and political science.”
Von KleinSmid’s racist beliefs are articulated in his publication “Eugenics and the State” where he called for the preservation of society on the basis that there were inferior and superior groups that should be controlled through sterilization. The Human Betterment Foundation, a think-tank von KleinSmid founded in 1928 that promoted eugenics, and its members had direct ties to Nazi Germany, influencing the ideology used to justify the Holocaust, according to a 2015 paper published in the Chapman Historical Review.
According to Fregia, sustained pressure on administration by activists and a relentless desire for change from students and the community are the main reasons USC finally agreed upon the renaming.
“This thing would have never happened if it weren’t for the people that marched at USC,” said Fregia who also launched a petition March 2018 calling for the name change. “It wouldn’t have happened if there wasn’t protests around the country. Activism is what really pushed this over the finish line. The task force and the resolution and all this other stuff might have structured it, might have systemized it, but it was the activists that made it happen.”
USC alumna Joy Ofodu said the dedication from student activists speaks to their belief that USC can change for the better.
“I believe, you know, if you love an institution, you should critique it and you should vocally oppose anything that threatens the credibility of that institution,” Ofodu said. “And there are a lot of aspects of USC’s administration that do threaten its credibility in saying that it’s a place that fosters diverse perspectives and multicultural perspectives while students were actively experiencing harm.”
After the USC Black Lives Matter march, students were inspired by the direct action their peers were taking and felt it was important to contribute to the cause as well.
Win McCain, a rising senior majoring in dance, helped start a petition after attending the march that requested the immediate renaming of VKC and removal of the bust. Although he and his co-writers said they do not attribute Folt’s decision to the petition, McCain believes that the public attention and pressure on administration held them accountable.
“Immediate, small fixes like this [are] just the tip of the iceberg of everything that needs to be fixed in order to achieve some kind of racial justice,” said Sidney Ramsey, a rising senior majoring in health and the human sciences and dance, who created the petition with McCain.
According to Calvin Carmichael, a rising junior and Black Student Assembly co-director, an inspired and demanding student body of all backgrounds is necessary to create change on campus.
“This isn’t an issue just held by the BSA and that BSA needs to take responsibility for in helping change the community,” Carmichael said. “This is an issue that the whole student body and … the student government has.”
In her email to the University community last week, Folt said the six initiatives she presented marked the beginning of a longer journey to combat anti-Blackness on campus. Many students hope the renaming of VKC serves as a catalyst for continued student activism on campus and amplifies the momentum of reforms from administration.
“This is a long journey, and it’s going to take a lot of commitment,” said Folt in an interview with the Daily Trojan Thursday. “It’s a chance for us to really get a good look but start taking actions pretty precipitously with as broad involvement as possible. And if we do that, a month from now, it’ll be better, and two months from now, it’ll be better. And I think that’s the point … to keep moving forward, involving people and making actions that can get us moving ahead.”
According to Claudia Torres, a rising senior majoring in law, history and culture, the next step that should be taken is finding an appropriate and fitting permanent name for the prominent building on campus.
“I hope that they name it after somebody that’s a USC alumni, someone that is preferably part of the Black, indigenous, [or] people of color community,” Torres said. “Someone that really represents the value of what it is to be a Trojan, of what it is that USC stands for — which is inclusivity, which is about social justice, it’s about diversity.”
The nomenclature committee that was dedicated to advising administration about renaming processes no longer exists, Cannon said. The administration is now equipped to handle nomenclature debates as they arise.
“Our task force recommended a way that that could exist — what the process could be — and also recommended the sort of overarching and guiding principles that the committee could use to look at requests for de-naming or renaming buildings or other spaces,” Cannon said.
Although the prominent building at the center of campus no longer bears the name of the racist eugenicist, a New North Residential College building still displays the family name, memorializing von KleinSmid’s daughter Elizabeth.
When asked about the University’s intention on looking into the renaming of the residential building, a media representative said Folt had no further comment on the issue beyond her interview with the Daily Trojan last week.
“There are a number of buildings and things that aren’t even yet named,” Folt said in the interview. “We have an immense opportunity with naming on campus … I think it’s going to give us an opportunity to work together with students and staff and faculty and neighbors to take another look.”
Regardless of the long fight to rename VKC and the many fights to still be had, Prempeh said USC is headed in the right direction and hopes the president and administration continue to combat racism and anti-Blackness.
“I’m not a person who’s super trusting of upper administration, especially at a super white-supremacist and very wealthy institution, but Dr. Folt has presented a very open and listening ear,” Prempeh said. “She is going to work for us, and I have a lot of faith.”
Nathan Ackerman, Shaylee Navarro and Natalie Oganeysan contributed to this report.
Clarification: This article was updated June 20 at 9:15 p.m. to clarify the context surrounding USC administration and President Carol Folt’s decision to rename VKC, including adding details about student activists’ central roles in bringing about change and the accomplishments of USG’s 2018 resolution.