Op-Ed: The troubling Olin name
Before the COVID-19 crisis, I walked past a giant portrait of John M. Olin every day on the way to my office as a visiting professor at Washington University in St. Louis. The business school and a library at Washington University are named after Olin, who was a longtime member of the university’s Board of Trustees and gave millions of dollars to the school, including through the eponymous John M. Olin Foundation.
Because I’m interested in understanding how philanthropic donations affect higher education institutions, I looked into Olin’s history of giving to universities. In light of the current protests in response to the killings of Black people by police across the country, what I learned about Olin’s motivation for donating to universities was disturbing.
As reported by Jane Mayer, Olin’s focus on higher education stemmed from a protest of racial injustice by a group of approximately 80 Black students at Cornell University, Olin’s alma mater, in 1969. In response to the protest, Cornell’s president agreed to expedite the establishment of a Black Studies program at the university and to investigate the burning of a cross outside of a building where Black students lived. The president also granted the protesters amnesty.
Olin was deeply distressed by the protest at Cornell. As described by Mayer, “Almost worse than the behavior of the protestors, from his standpoint, was the behavior of Cornell’s president, James A. Perkins, a committed liberal who had gone out of his way to open the university’s doors to inner-city minority students and now seemed to be bending the curriculum and lowering disciplinary standards to placate them.” To counter what Olin perceived to be happening at Cornell and other universities, the John M. Olin Foundation—which previously focused on donations to hospitals, museums and the like—began to focus its donations on the country’s elite universities. According to Mayer, “He began to fund an ambitious offensive to reorient the political slant of American higher education to the right.”
Olin’s reaction to the Black student protest at Cornell exemplifies the type of attitude that allows social injustices to persist. By having a school and library named after Olin, Washington University implicitly lends credence to his views, sending exactly the wrong message at this critical juncture in the history of St. Louis and the nation. Imagine the powerful message that the University could send by removing the Olin name from campus buildings. It would signal that the University values social justice over large financial gifts. It would provide a tangible sign that the University’s leadership is willing to take the types of steps necessary to address the gross inequities and injustices that plague St. Louis and the nation.