A provocative exhibit about the University of Minnesota’s history of segregation and anti-Semitism has prompted U officials to assemble a committee to confront that past.
President Eric Kaler announced the formation of the President’s and Provost’s Advisory Committee on University History in a letter that was read Wednesday at a public event for the exhibit “A Campus Divided: Progressives, Anti-Communists, Racism, and Anti-Semitism at the University of Minnesota, 1930-1942.”
The exhibit unearths long-buried information about the efforts of well-known university administrators to segregate housing, spy on Jewish students and quash student activism.
It “highlights actions by some in the past that we condemn today,” Kaler wrote. The advisory committee, he said, will “guide our thinking about appropriate modern responses to historical issues on our campuses.”
The committee is led by John Coleman, dean of the College of Liberal Arts on the Twin Cities campus. Members will include the U historian, faculty members, students, alumni and donors. Their proposals could be taken to the Board of Regents, which governs the naming of buildings on campus.
“Dean Coleman will lead the systemwide conversation and research and he will bring recommendations to the Provost and me that we will then discuss with senior leaders and, as appropriate, the Board of Regents,” Kaler said.
The Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas came out in support of the new committee Thursday in a statement.
“We welcome this decision at a time when anti-Semitic attitudes and rhetoric are on the rise,” said executive director Steve Hunegs, who attended the exhibit opening.
As students and faculty members have made their way through the exhibit on two floors of the Elmer L. Andersen Library, many have responded with shock and outrage, with some raising questions of whether the perpetrators of discriminatory policies should continue to be memorialized on campus.
For example, Lotus D. Coffman, as president from 1920 to 1938, was instrumental in keeping black students out of campus housing. The student union, which houses the offices of student organizations, is named for him.
The purpose of the advisory committee is “to continue our examination of the University’s past and guide our responses going forward,” Kaler wrote.
The committee is not limited to looking only at the 1930s, said Riv-Ellen Prell, professor emerita of American studies, who researched the exhibit with Sarah Atwood, a Ph.D. candidate at the U.
“I’m quite sure there will be a much bigger set of discussions about the founding of the university, the 1960s when there was the next big wave of student activism, to the present,” Prell said. “I think it’s wonderful both President Kaler and Provost [Karen] Hanson are really interested in exploring the engagement with memory, in all its complexity.”
The exhibit is on display through Nov. 30 at the Andersen Library’s Atrium Gallery, 222 21st Av. S., Minneapolis.
A digital version of the exhibit, with documents, is at acampusdivided.umn.edu.