Thoughts on U building name changes
My wife and I live in the 1666 Coffman Condominium, which is affiliated with the University of Minnesota. The “Campus Divided” exhibit in the University of Minnesota (UMN) Libraries brought the tainted legacy of President Lotus Coffman (1920-1938) to our attention. Our “Coffman” name is inexorably linked to us by our founding documents and identity. Long-term residents tell me that this is due, not to any conscious intent to honor Coffman, but because our address is on Coffman Street. Nonetheless, the possibility that the UMN might remove Coffman’s name from Memorial Union, and how that might affect us, was of interest.
We attended the Board of Regents meetings on March 8 and April 26, when the name-change question was on the agenda. I want to share some observations from those meetings, particularly in light of Regent Beeson’s commentary in the June issue of the Park Bugle.
The UMN, like any leading research and teaching university, actively promotes the open and honest search for truth, respect for scholarly works, and the opportunity for faculty to respond to questions and criticisms. We demand no less from the UMN. Unfortunately, none of these laudable goals was on display at these two Regents meetings.
Distinguished UMN History Department faculty were charged with researching the legacy and history of four former UMN administrators, Coffey, Coffman, Middlebrook and Nicholson. The Task Force presented its findings at the March 8 meeting. They recommended renaming four buildings bearing the names of these individuals, a recommendation endorsed by President Kaler. The historical record they assembled on Coffman revealed a pattern of antisemitism, active support for segregated student housing and active suppression of campus “radicals” (often Jews) in the 1920s and 30s. At that meeting, several Regents questioned the professional integrity and motivations of the Task Force members sitting before them. The meeting was cut short before the Task Force could react or respond. Regardless of how one feels about changing the names, the shabby treatment of the Task Force was a reprehensible moment for the UMN.
At the April 26 meeting, the Regents passed resolutions to leave the names unchanged. Fine, but again, the Task Force was not given an opportunity to respond or comment. This time the overflow crowd of students and faculty staged a near revolt. History department faculty were reduced to shouting their objections to false and misleading statements made by certain Regents. After threats of physical removal of protesters by security, the acting chair relented and allowed recently retired history professor John Wright to make a statement. What followed was one of those moments when you realize you are a witness to a truly remarkable event as Professor Wright spoke extemporaneously and eloquently about his own family’s story of discrimination at the UMN over a period of 118 years. I love the UMN, but we can do so much better.
Editor’s note: The writer is the current president of the 1666 Coffman Board. His views do not necessarily those reflect those of the Coffman Association.
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