Sullivan’s Perkins letter was in poor taste

Letter to the Editor

President Sullivan,

Your office’s recent email comparing students here at UVM to McCarthy was in incredibly poor taste. Students who are concerned or angry that a UVM building is named Perkins should not be vilified.

If you are interested in the history of rhetoric in this country perhaps you know that it is an incredibly common technique to call one’s opponents Hitler, or Stalin, or Caligula or any other of a slew of people that we are not. You and your office should not sink to engaging in this, the weakest of arguments.

If you have a good reason to want to honor Dean George Perkins I would be very happy to hear it. If your reason is so good that it actually outweighs the pain of those of us whose people suffered similar crimes to those perpetrated by Dean Perkins’ son, then I applaud your conviction and ask you to share that reason.

However, I would guess that the desire of keeping the name Perkins in a place of honor on campus does not rise to level of the pain that the Abenaki and others have felt having it there.

This dismissive claim used in favor of keeping the name does not show respect to the weight of a heritage harmed by eugenics. My people, the Sami, were forcibly sterilized, as was our culture.

Norwegian and Swedish authorities systematically worked to destroy everything the Sami culture embodied and keep us from surviving to the present day. That is a stain that does not go away. The pain of knowing your culture was almost wiped out does not go away. That is the pain that the name Perkins embodies here at UVM.

You argue that the father should not be tried for the crimes of the son. I would agree with that simplified statement. But you leave out the complexity of the situation in an attempt to make a point.

Henry Perkins was not only raised by his father, he taught at his father’s school. I think it is highly unlikely that his father had no idea what he was doing or knew but did not accept it. You say there is no evidence he participated, but neither is there any evidence that I can find that he tried to stop what his son was doing.

When Henry came to UVM to begin his path to the Vermont Eugenics survey, he and his wife and daughters lived in George Perkins’ house with him. The two are linked much more closely than simple “association,” as you put it. Furthermore, the building is not called the “Dean George Perkins Building” it is simply the Perkins Building, regardless of the plaque to which you refer.

The name Perkins just as surely refers to the man who wanted the legal right to sterilize anyone he deemed damaging to an ideal Vermont as it does to his father. We cannot simply assume which person the University means to honor, because the name Bailey is still used despite his place in this issue. So we cannot assume that the University does not honor those who do not deserve it.

Suppose, though, that we agree George Perkins has no fault in this. Then we are giving him credit as a person of some honor. Given that, is it not likely that he would not want the name he and his son share on the building? He might agree to let it be named something else if he was really a person who cared about the pain of those people his son so despised.

If, on the other hand, we assume that he would insist that the building remains “Perkins” despite the pain it causes students and despite the ties the name has to hate and to deliberate destruction of ethnic minorities, then he does not deserve to have his name there.

I hold that the building should be named for Henry Perkins’ victims, but if you are so attached to keeping the building in George Perkins’ honor then might I suggest choosing a project of his or an aspect you ascribe to him to laud. You could name the building “loyalty” or “fortitude” or whatever term you see fit to match Discovery and upcoming projects.

You call us McCarthy for condemning a name. Your insult is effective, perhaps, in making people feel uncomfortable, but it is hardly relevant. Simplifying an issue like this to a narrow view of history is ridiculous to say the least.

I would give your office the credit of not having meant any insult, but instead I will give it the much higher credit of being intelligent enough to mean what it says.

Given this, I would ask that you either clarify your position on the name Perkins and explain to everyone why it is so important that it remain, or change the name of the building.


Josamine Bronnvik

Class of 2018

[email protected]