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Our vision: the university has the obligation to tell the full story of the former president

There are at least two sides to Clarence Cook Little, who served in the 1920s as president of the University of Maine. But only one of them got his name in a building.

That side was the one who came to Orono in 1922 and helped make the university grow, building Memorial Gym and Field House and Stevens Hall, and starting the orientation of "Freshman Week", something copied by almost all the colleges and universities of today. He was the one who returned to Maine in 1929 and founded what later became the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, a world-renowned genetic research laboratory.

But there was another side to Little, a much darker one that is not represented by the building on the Orono campus that took its name. It's the same side that last week led to the University of Michigan, where Little was president after leaving UMaine, to remove his name from a building there.

The University of Maine should do the same. Naming a building after someone is a celebration of that person, and a higher education institution should not celebrate someone like Little.

Instead, a university must, in every way, trust students and the faculty to understand the contradictions often found in figures of the past, and invite them to reflect critically on history.

Little's criticism has to do with how he used his prestige as a scientist and university president to legitimize efforts in which science was leaning in a damaging, even deadly way.

In the 1920s, he served as president of the American Eugenics Society, which promoted selective breeding to create a better human race, and looked for ways to keep people with what were considered undesirable traits of procreation.

Later, in 1954, Little lent his name and reputation to the Research Committee of the Tobacco Industry, where he became scientific director. The group was formed by the largest tobacco producers to refute the science that shows that tobacco causes cancer. Little took part in the industry's first attempts to sow doubt about irrefutable science, saying that the cancer was probably caused by a number of other factors instead.

Even when millions died, the group continued to lie about the link between smoking and cancer, a link that was well known to tobacco executives, and dissolved in the 1998 tobacco agreement.

You will not get that story in the building named in Little's honor, nor will you get it from your biography on the UMaine website, where the only mention is that you directed the tobacco group, not that its purpose was to cover bad news for the industry.

It is doubtful that students think much about Little's story when they enter the building on the Orono campus, and in many other settings it could be considered harmless.

But universities have a responsibility to commit to the past, and celebrating a figure like Little without fully engaging in their legacy goes against the mission of higher education.

Removing Little's name will not change or erase the past, nothing can do that. As a former president, Little is part of UMaine's history. However, that story must be told in full.

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