U.Va. considers renaming International Residential College house after first graduate from China

Building currently named after eugenicist and former College Dean Ivey Foreman Lewis

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If the proposal is adopted, Lewis House would be renamed to Yen House. 

Joshua Zabin | Cavalier Daily

The University Board of Visitors will consider a resolution this week to rename an International Residential College dormitory from bearing the name of a eugenicist and former College Dean to that of the University’s first graduate from China. If approved, the move would rename the Lewis House to the Yen House. 

Ivey Foreman Lewis was a University biology professor and eugenicist, who also served as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences between 1946 and 1953. 

In 1900, W.W. Yen became the first student from China to graduate from the University and was the first international student at the University to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. After graduation, he taught at St. John’s University in Shanghai, and later in his career became China’s Minister of Foreign Affairs.

A resolution for the renaming is on the Board’s Building and Grounds Committee’s consent agenda for Thursday. 

“Mr. Yen serves as a distinguished example of a true global scholar committed to cross-cultural exchange, peace and goodwill,” the resolution says.

University President Teresa Sullivan said in an interview with The Cavalier Daily on Tuesday that she found Yen’s success to be the main driver of the name change.

“Lewis House was basically reconstructed over the summer, so we were treating it something like a new naming opportunity,” Sullivan said. “[In the] IRC, there has been nothing named for an international graduate. And W.W. Yen is a really spectacular international graduate. I think that was a more compelling part of the case.”

Lewis House is not the only building being renamed at the University — Jordan Hall, named after former School of Medicine dean and eugenicist Harvey Jordan, is being renamed as Pinn Hall. The renaming honors Vivian Pinn, the only female and African-American student to graduate from the School of Medicine in 1967. 

This renaming of the Lewis House also comes at a time when the Black Student Alliance and numerous other student groups have demanded that “More buildings named after prominent white supremacists, eugenicists, or slaveholders should be renamed after people of marginalized groups.” 

A recent poll conducted by The Cavalier Daily found split student support for this specific demand, which also calls on the University to recontextualize the statue of Thomas Jefferson north of the Rotunda with a plaque that includes information about Jefferson’s history with white supremacy. 

About 37 percent of respondents said they agreed with the demand, while just under 44 percent of respondents said they disagreed with this demand. About 17 percent of students said they did not know or had no opinion. 

Lewis, the man who the dorm is currently named after, had a complex history with the University. 

Lewis became a professor of biology in 1915, entering the University as a proponent of eugenics. 

A New York Times article from April 1924 quoted Lewis as telling University students in a speech that, “The purity of the white race in America we regard as a basal necessity for the maintenance of the heritage which we have received.” 

Ali Barakat, a third-year College student and IRC resident, said he supported the name change.

“We should change it,” Barakat said. “There has to be a weighted average that we have to give historical people, because society was different then ... they were restricted to society … I wouldn’t want to get rid of Benjamin Franklin because of something he said. But at the same time, you wouldn’t want to give longevity to historical monsters.”

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