Grappling with building-name changes at U of M
By Richard Beeson
Editor’s note: Last month, the University of Minnesota Board of Regents declined to change the names of four campus buildings—Coffman Memorial Union and Nicholson, Middlebrook and Coffey halls—named for former administrators, despite a task-force recommendation that claimed the men being honored had exhibited a pattern of racism and anti-Semitism. UMN regent Richard Beeson, who is also executive vice president at Sunrise Banks, wrote this opinion piece for the Bugle.
Several years ago, our renowned University of Minnesota faculty began work on the issue of housing segregation and political surveillance on campus during the 1930s.
I had the opportunity to tour “Campus Divided” and have spent time listening and learning, including conducting additional research. The work by Campus Divided was a significant undertaking and disclosed a part of our history that has been largely untold. It also revealed behavior which, through today’s lens, is disappointing and discriminatory.
There are no generally accepted standards around college building renamings and that becomes apparent and problematic as soon as specific names are considered. In my view, there are conditions under which buildings should be renamed. The facts and intentions must be indisputable, and the behavior extraordinary in relation to the context of the times in which they were occurring.
I will focus here on Lotus Coffman, the leader and second-longest serving university president from 1920-1938. The task force concluded that Coffman could have forced integration of Pioneer Hall in 1935—but did not—and that his name should therefore be removed.
The records are limited and, of course, neither the parties nor their children survive. There are no recordings and the written history of the university provides only a glimpse. We’re left with news accounts and letters. At the end of the day, I found the evidence on Coffman compelling but unconvincing, for the following reasons:
- Seven of the Big Ten universities had segregated campus housing in 1935.
— There is no evidence Coffman prevented African-Americans or Jews from attending the university.
- The regents may have believed that housing segregation was legal under the separate but equal Plessy vs. Ferguson doctrine and given constitutional autonomy. That is legally disputable, but the practice went unchallenged in court.
- The regents publicly passed a resolution directing Coffman to maintain Pioneer as segregated. Powerful board chair (for 36 years) and attorney Fred Snyder separately instructed then-Dean Coffey to “go slow on the race problem.” The power dynamic between Coffman and board members Snyder, Dr. William Mayo and James Ford Bell remains unexplored.
- Coffman had interest in an off-campus “International House” for non-white students but was unable to obtain board support
- The larger Twin Cities community was a center of anti-semitism and private housing was red-lined as evidenced by a separate university study. The university itself, despite its segregated housing practice, was otherwise more socially tolerant than the community it served. Former chair and regent Linda Cohen recounted the hurtful job discrimination her father experienced after he graduated and the off-campus injustices she encountered a generation later.
- Coffman, who was born in the 1870s, was a more broadly progressive thinker than the ordinary person. There is no evidence of racial slurs, baiting or superiority claims. The letters I reviewed are noticeably absent of racial or religious references.
- The Student Committee on Negro Discrimination concluded that Coffman’s University was relatively discrimination-free, except for this housing matter on which they felt he was completely wrong.
- Coffman created General College, a transformative move, enabling thousands of students and ultimately giving more students of color access to the university. The U of M’s Nobel Prize winner Norman Borlaug immediately benefitted after failing admission to liberal arts in 1933.
President Coffman was a visionary leader and a substantial president between the two world wars and through the Great Depression. However, he failed to provide leadership on this issue and missed an opportunity to place Minnesota on the leading edge of the early civil rights movement. The university will atone for its mistakes and transgressions and must be able to accurately describe the complex legacies of Coffman and the others.
Finally, 1930s student activists included the legendary St. Anthony Park resident and WWII conscientious objector Warner Shippee. He was a remarkable and wise man who would have been helpful in these conversations.
Please stop in at Sunrise Banks or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts. I will continue to evolve my views based on input. Thank you for the opportunity to serve on your land-grant university.