Community questions the bust of a past controversial University president
Unknown to most members of the Hopkins community, a bust of Isaiah Bowman, fifth president of the University is displayed outside Shriver Hall.
He was known for his outspoken anti-Semitic views. Bowman served as President of the University from 1935-1948, during the rise of Hitler, the Third Reich, and the aftermath of World War II.
University President Ronald J. Daniels acknowledged Bowman’s faults and accomplishments. Daniels related Bowman’s legacy to the administration’s new initiative to promote diversity and inclusion on campus.
“As I acknowledged in our Roadmap on Diversity and Inclusion, we need to wrestle with our university’s history, warts and all, and Bowman’s story is a perfect example of that,” Daniels wrote in an email to The News-Letter. “He was a visionary in many ways, but blind to his own hurtful prejudice. The bust honors his contributions, but we should also learn from his flaws.”
Geographer and scholar Neil Smith studied Bowman’s life and career while pursuing his Ph.D at Hopkins in the early 1980s and wrote extensively about Bowman’s presidency at Hopkins in the book, American Empire: Roosevelt’s Geographer and the Prelude to Globalization, published in 2003. Smith recounted many of Bowman’s anti-Semitic remarks within his text.
In 1939, Bowman fired Jewish faculty member Eric Goldman. In response, Bowman stated, “There are already too many Jews at Hopkins.” Goldman had received a unanimous departmental vote for reappointment to his position as a professor of history. Bowman believed that “Jews don’t come to Hopkins to make the world better or anything like that. They came for two things: to make money and to marry non-Jewish women.” James Franck, who would later become a Nobel Laureate, along with three other faculty members left the University due to the climate Bowman fostered.
In 1942, Bowman instituted a quota on the number of Jewish students admitted to the University and restricted the number of Jewish students allowed to pursue degrees in the fields of science and math. The quota was abolished in the 1950s. In addition to his anti-Semitic beliefs, Bowman also expressed anti-black and homophobic sentiments.
“You don’t destroy history. You learn from it.” —Stephen H. Sachs, Former Attorney General of Md.
University trustee Emeritus Shale Stiller learned about Bowman’s presidency through his late law partner and mentor Robert Goldman, who attended Hopkins as an undergraduate during the Bowman era. Stiller also took courses taught by Hopkins Professor of English Literature Earl Wasserman, whose acquisition of the position was met with great opposition by Bowman, largely due to the fact that he was Jewish. Stiller himself has read about Bowman but does not believe many students today are aware of who he was. He stated that it is important that students learn about Bowman.
“I think students at Hopkins ought to know not only about Bowman but about the whole history of anti-Semitism in American universities on the East Coast in the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s,” Stiller said.
Stiller emphasized that neither Bowman nor Hopkins were unique in their perpetuation of anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism, especially on the East Coast, was rampant during the Bowman era, as Hitler became more well-known. He also noted that while a statue of Hitler would induce an immediate necessity for removal, Bowman’s bust does not elicit the same degree of outrage and call for removal. In fact Stiller believes that the bust should not be removed, despite the fact that it honors an anti-Semitic individual.
“For those students who want to just tear down Bowman’s bust in front of Shriver Hall and take out any historical names, [it would] erase a good opportunity to teach students about the fact that nobody is perfect,” Stiller said. “To abolish any mention of his name doesn’t give the opportunity to teach that lesson. My concern is that to abolish those names eliminates the opportunity to teach kids a valuable lesson: People who do good things sometimes do something that is bad.”
Stiller conceded that while he deeply dislikes Bowman, the former president accomplished many feats in his lifetime. Bowman helped found the American Geographical Society and acted as the organization’s first director. He also served as an adviser to both Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. After World War II he participated in talks regarding the formation of the United Nations. He also helped to establish the Applied Physics Laboratory at Hopkins in 1942 and added the departments of geography, oceanography and aeronautics to the University.
Stiller further stressed the need for students to know about other atrocities in American history, citing the government’s treatment of Native Americans and the internment of Japanese American citizens as examples. In addition, Stiller likened the presence of Bowman’s bust to similar controversies at other universities, such as the naming of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton and Calhoun College at Yale. He explained that the question of honoring individuals known for their prejudicial and racist views is visible outside of college campuses, referring to public calls for the removal of the statue of Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney — who delivered the infamous Dred Scott decision — and the renaming of Robert E. Lee Park in Baltimore.
“I think there is another good reason, especially at universities, for not removing all of the public symbols of people such as Wilson, Calhoun, Taney, Lee and perhaps even Bowman,” Stiller wrote in an email to The News-Letter. “The ‘removal brigade’ is, in a sense, a manifestation of historical revisionism. To blot out those names does nothing to teach students as well as adults the wisdom in understanding the fallibility of politicians and other leaders. Retaining the public symbols and then teaching how those people erred does more to create an educated public than blotting out their names forever.”
Stephen H. Sachs, a Baltimore native, former Attorney General of Maryland and the former United States Attorney for Maryland, heard stories about Bowman as a young boy from his father, Leon Sachs. Leon served as an instructor in the Political Science Department at Hopkins and taught during the Bowman era.
“My father had the clear opinion, and this would not have been typical at all for him because he didn’t lightly accuse someone of being anti-Semitic but Bowman had that reputation,” Sachs said.
In regards to the presence of the Bowman bust, Sachs maintained that the bust should remain in its current condition outside of Shriver Hall.
“You don’t destroy history. You learn from it,” Sachs said.
Associate Director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs Joseph Colón echoed the need to recognize the University’s history of prejudice and exclusion.
“Across the country, colleges and universities have become invested in providing students with more opportunities to engage in dialogue about diversity and inclusion,” Colón wrote in an email to The News-Letter. “The controversy of former JHU President Bowman is an opportunity to discuss our past, how it impacts our present and create an inclusive campus culture that conveys our commitment to diversity. Our Hopkins community is ready to take on such a task, and this includes conversations surrounding our difficult history.”
Sophie Tulkoff, Vice President of the Jewish Students Association, expressed similar sentiments while noting that an open climate exists at Hopkins today.
“JSA deplores anti-Semitism and we believe any recognition [regarding] Bowman should be placed in the appropriate context,” she wrote in an email to The News-Letter. “We are grateful to be on the Johns Hopkins Homewood campus at a time when the administration cares about diversity and inclusion and encourages Jewish life.”