A March 14 letter from a retired University of Minnesota faculty member regarding the proposed renaming of the U’s Coffman Union gets a low grade for a surprising number of factual and logical errors.
It asserts that this is an example of past figures being judged by present political/religious values and that cultural relativism should teach us that standards change over time.
The implication is that Lotus Coffman’s shortcomings were moral failings only by today’s standards, not those of his own time, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Coffman was U president from 1920 to 1938. This means he pursued policies that were blatantly anti-Semitic during the very period when the Nazis came to power in Germany and the Holocaust began — a time for taking a stand against anti-Semitism if ever there was one, as the global war against the Axis powers would soon demonstrate.
Coffman demanded the racial segregation of African-American students in a state in which numerous civil rights organizations had been founded or opened branches in the late 1800s and early 1900s, a state that had passed the Equal Accommodations Act, guaranteeing blacks equal access to all public places and hotels, way back in 1885, 35 years before Coffman led the U.
In short, these were major moral issues of his own day on which he failed, not things that would only be judged as immoral by later standards.
The letter asks, “should Van Gogh’s paintings be destroyed because he was a drunkard?” This is obviously a false equivalence. Nobody is suggesting that, say, documents signed or written by Coffman (or paintings painted by him, for that matter) should be destroyed rather than preserved as historical documents. A more sound equivalent question might be, should we name an alcohol treatment or mental health facility after Vincent Van Gogh? Probably not.
Renaming Coffman Union would not be about “punishing persons in the past,” as the letter stated. It is about respecting valued members of the U’s community in the present. Coffman Union is the symbolic center of campus life. It is where student groups that represent the full diversity of the U community are located. Do we really want to continue to make the Jewish Community Action student group meet in a building named after a man who tried to limit the number of Jewish students admitted to the U? Do we want the Black Student Union to continue to be housed in a building named after a man who kicked black students out of dormitories just because they were black?
The students and faculty of today say no, it’s long past time to stop honoring an anti-Semitic racist with such a prominent building on campus. Respecting the otherness of past historical moments does not require that prejudices that were wrong even in those times continue to be honored today.
Jason McGrath is associate professor, Asian language and literature, at the University of Minnesota.