Intense deadline pressure, hurdles to tracking down records and skepticism about administrator support plagued a University of Minnesota faculty task force that weighed renaming four Twin Cities campus buildings, newly released documents suggest.
In April, a near-unanimous governing board rejected the task force’s recommendations to strip the names of U administrators who did not integrate campus dorms in the 1930s and ’40s. But the move hasn’t brought closure in a contentious chapter at the end of Eric Kaler’s presidency that has strained relationships between leaders, professors and students. As the U braces for another foray into reckoning with its history, correspondence by task force members and others sheds light on university missteps — and hints at the challenges of rebounding from them.
The e-mails include no evidence that the task force intentionally excluded or twisted information to malign former President Lotus Coffman and the other former leaders, as some regents have charged. They do capture a scramble to finish a 125-page report on a tight timeline, acknowledgments that the report would be short of definitive — and frustration with U leaders who faculty felt bungled the process.
Joan Gabel, who steps in as president July 1, will grapple with a directive from regents to set up permanent displays and other ways to delve into the U’s history — a task potentially tougher than changing building names.
“If renaming is such a difficult question for the university to handle, I don’t see how we can take these bigger questions beyond renaming,” said William Jones, a history professor who served on the task force.
Kaler and Provost Karen Hanson convened the Task Force on Building Names and Institutional History in October as student leaders were already voicing impatience about a process to consider renaming Coffman Memorial Union. A 2017 exhibit called “A Campus Divided” had zeroed in on Coffman, former president Walter Coffey and former vice president William Middlebrook for failing to challenge a status quo of excluding blacks from dorms, as well as on former Dean Edward Nicholson, for surveilling students.
The U’s student government had approved a resolution in March 2018 to drop Coffman’s name while an advisory group led by John Coleman, College of Liberal Arts dean, was working on general guidelines for weighing name changes. With these guidelines, the new 11-member faculty and student task force co-chaired by Coleman and professor Susanna Blumenthal set out to examine the administrators’ legacies and make recommendations — in six weeks.
Kaler has said he didn’t want to saddle Gabel with a thorny issue from his tenure. But it quickly became evident that would not be enough time. Even as numerous higher education institutions have recently grappled with campus renamings, the U’s decision to tackle four names at once sets it apart.
Faculty wanted to explore the legal and social context in which the former administrators worked and dig deeper than the campus exhibit. As Coleman wrote to a university archivist that fall, they were looking for “exculpatory evidence” — records that might cast the former leaders in a new light.
The task force’s December deadline coincided with end-of-semester obligations, and the co-chairs secured an extension until mid-January. That December the task force met with Kaler, and some members walked away questioning if the administration took the effort seriously enough. Jones, the history professor, floated the idea of withholding their recommendations until Kaler committed to back “a real study into the history of discrimination,” pointing to a multiyear, $1 million such project at the University of Wisconsin.
In January, the task force got a second reprieve, scuttling plans to present the report at the board’s February meeting. In e-mails between task force members and U staff, some sent during the wee hours, they refer to the “crazy deadline” and “excruciating time pressure.” At one point, Regent Abdul Omari, the only one who would eventually vote in favor of renaming, inquired about the extensions.
“Committee is working very hard but taking too long!” Kaler e-mailed back.
Task force members at times acknowledged the limitations of what they had undertaken. Blumenthal wrote that rather than the final word on the administrators’ legacies, the report would be “a survey of the official narratives and silences.”
Even after the report went to regents, the task force continued looking for a 1935 letter from Middlebrook to Coffman cited in a former student’s dissertation. The letter, voicing the belief that integrated dorms would lead to more, not less, racial prejudice, played a key part in the report. And days before the March board meeting, as regents inquired if faculty had looked at the records of longtime board chair Fred Snyder, the task force dispatched a student to review them.
Blumenthal now says that while history by definition is an ongoing exploration that requires interpretation, “We reached more than a critical mass and saturation point on the existence of discriminatory practices.”
At the March board meeting, regents sharply criticized the task force report, with the co-chairs getting a limited chance to respond as time ran out. The regents zeroed in on the report’s failure to explore the role of the governing board at the time, whose members unanimously supported segregated dorms. A couple suggested that the task force had left out information intentionally.
In e-mails following the meeting, members voiced dismay with the regents’ attacks — and with the administration’s silence, even after it had embraced their recommendations before the meeting. In an e-mail to Omari, Coleman confided that for some time, he and Blumenthal had questioned if the administration had a strategy to see the recommendations through — and that meeting made it clear there was none.
“With my political scientist hat on I can only shake my head and say, wow,” he wrote.
In private, administrators had strong words. Hanson called regents’ behavior “ghastly.” In an e-mail to the chairs, Kaler called the report’s reception “breathtaking” and said he should have defended the task force more. Kaler and Hanson did eventually write a letter to the campus community including a rebuke of the meeting’s tone, but professors such as Jones still feel the administration’s defense should have been forceful.
Regent Michael Hsu, who called for an investigation into the task force, acknowledged that the correspondence reveals no evidence the group conspired to hide information. But he continues to support an investigation. He says the e-mails reveal lapses in thoroughness and show that for some faculty, exploring arguments against renaming was an afterthought, with the co-chairs having to nudge them to include them.
“They were not doing this as an exercise in looking for the truth,” he said. “They presumed these people were guilty.”
The university made relatively minor redactions to the e-mails, but it said several were redacted more extensively because the information was “specifically about an individual and evaluative in nature.” One, which German professor Leslie Morris sent after the March meeting, appears with a redacted sentence and later unredacted, where that sentence reads referring to regents’ treatment, “As the lead on Nicholson, I was horrified, and I apologize for any inaccuracies there might be in that part of the report.” (Task force members said a single error, which misidentified a student leader as a regent, has been corrected.)
Hanson, the provost, said in retrospect the group’s timeline was too compressed. But she said the administration granted the task force two extensions because it did take its work seriously. And she said, “The president and I have clearly indicated we stand by the work of the task force.”
She said the Kaler administration has decided to hold off on appointing a planned permanent task force to handle future naming issues and help with commemorative efforts so Gabel can convene that group. A forum on renaming, at which regents, faculty and others can openly hash out their differences, is planned in the fall.
“There’s broad agreement that we need to learn more,” said Coleman. “We need to know more.”