Naming university buildings after former presidents or other dignitaries isn’t always a good idea. You may end up honoring people who were on the wrong side of history, particularly when they were busy administering academic affairs in the 1930s or ’40s. Some campus leaders, as we learned recently at the University of Minnesota, used their powerful positions to spy on students, discriminate against Jews and promote racial segregation. While I find it quite shocking that this happened in the U.S., it wouldn’t come as a surprise in my home country, where the majority of academics fell more or less enthusiastically in line with the Nazi government during that time. That’s, for example, why Martin Heidegger — philosopher, campus rector and one of the more enthusiastic führer followers who railed against the “growing Jewification of German spiritual life” — never got his Heidegger Hall at Freiburg University in postwar Germany.
When I first came to the University of Minnesota a little more than 10 years ago, I was astonished to find all ex-presidents immortalized by buildings named after them. It seemed to come as a default bonus with every presidential appointment. Being dead wasn’t a prerequisite, either. Now, if buildings really need to be named after university employees, why pick chief bureaucrats and not Nobel laureates? Even if you run a little short on the latter, reserving pomp and glory for the ceremonial heads just seems odd to me. After all, universities were originally conceived as academic republics, not monarchies.
Then, who is worthy of having their name on buildings? Those who pay the most money? Some may call that entrepreneurial spirit; to me, it’s entrepreneurial spirit gone amok. Luckily, it doesn’t go unpunished anymore. Just ask the patients who check into San Francisco General Hospital how they feel about the privacy of their health information, now that the hospital is named after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. There are serious initiatives underway to strip the hospital of Zuckerberg’s name. Good! Finally, people are coming to their senses. Why on Earth would you want to name a University of California teaching hospital after a university dropout who made an obscene amount of money with a platform that if anything has helped the global resurrection of fascism?
Here is the story of how my alma mater, formerly nameless and only generically known as the University of Düsseldorf, got its name. Heroic administrators or creepy billionaires were not in the running as namesakes. There was only one candidate, and it took the university 23 years of debate before he was accepted. This is very long, even by academic standards. Also, the debate was about Düsseldorf’s most famous son, 19th century poet Heinrich Heine, who revolutionized German literature by infusing it with satire and irony, single-handedly invented political journalism and wrote poems so beautiful and witty that they made Goethe’s verses sound stuffy and Olympian. Yet Johann Wolfgang Goethe got his name on Frankfurt University in a breeze. So, what was it about Heine, and why did most faculty not want his name on their university? We students clearly wanted it and put homemade Heinrich-Heine-Universität bumper stickers on our cars (accompanying image). After all, he stood for anti-establishment and had a 1970s haircut. That he was Jewish didn’t even cross our minds, but apparently it did cross the minds of the older faculty. I remember one of them, years after Heine’s name was approved, getting all excited about the Spoils of Jerusalem relief in Rome that commemorates the sacking of Jerusalem. He couldn’t take his eyes off the menorah and other booty carried along in the triumph procession and was heaping praise on the Romans for “knowing how to deal with Israel.”
Well, that faculty member is long-retired now, and so, we hope, is his generation’s mind-set. Any hope for a change of mind, however, was clearly wasted on Martin Heidegger, the philosopher-rector who never got his building. Instead, he got his teaching license revoked after the Allies defeated and occupied Germany in 1945. What did he do with his free time? Recently published letters reveal that he was busy campaigning against naming a street in his little Black Forest hometown after — you guessed right — Heinrich Heine. A quick search of “Messkirch, Germany” in Google maps will tell you that, luckily, Heidegger lost and Heine got his street. A clear win for good poetry over bad politics!
Which brings me back to the University of Minnesota, where Coffman Union and Nicholson Hall to this day carry the names of bureaucrats with a proven record of being racist snitches. Yet Garrison Keillor, Minnesota’s favorite storyteller, was made an “unperson,” his picture and memory erased from the Scholars Walk at the University of Minnesota in no time — for what crime again?
Henning Schroeder is a former vice provost and dean of graduate education at the University of Minnesota.