Renaming lakes, streets or buildings can be an emotional and divisive process. On one side are those who feel excluded and offended when a known racist is honored with his or her name on a public property. Then there’s the argument that historical figures shouldn’t have their accomplishments denied through judging them by today’s standards.
That’s the dilemma that earlier this year plunged the University of Minnesota into a contentious debate over renaming several buildings. Now U officials are rightly working on better ways to make better decisions about that process. And they’re wisely developing methods to acknowledge the U’s history of racial discrimination and other types of injustice.
It’s come to this for the U because of a proposal to rename four buildings on the U’s Twin Cities campus. Last spring, some students, a faculty task force and then-President Eric Kaler called for the name changes to address past racism and anti-Semitism at the institution.
Coffman Union was among the targeted structures because it was named after Lotus D. Coffman, the school’s president from 1920 to 1938. The task force said he excluded black students from university housing, medical training programs and athletics.
However, shortly after the task force report’s February release, a regent accused the panel of academic dishonesty, saying it left out information that would have vindicated Coffman. Some faculty members took that as an insult to their scholarship. Protesters taunted the board at meetings. Still, the Board of Regents rejected the changes with a 10-1 vote.
Now a new U president, Joan Gabel, is taking a welcome, fresh look at the issues. The board has asked her to plan permanent displays and educational activities to address campus segregation and other troubling episodes of the U’s history. And during the current school year, the university will hold a series of lectures and other events to spur conversations about university history.
In a statement, Gabel said that the U supports free speech on campus and condemns speech that promotes intolerance and discrimination. She added, though, that providing a forum for the airing of diverse viewpoints is “part of who we are.”
Gabel said she is forming a committee of faculty members, students and others to advise her so that she can present a new renaming policy to the board in February. She’ll review the variety of approaches other colleges and universities have taken on similar issues with the goal of developing clearer, more specific university renaming processes. Then regents are expected to vote on a new proposal next June.
It’s an encouraging effort that merits support.