The University of Minnesota’s governing board is poised to vote Friday against changing the names of four campus buildings after months of contentious debate about race and history.
U regents plan to act on a resolution keeping the names of Coffman Memorial Union and three Twin Cities halls, defying recommendations by President Eric Kaler and a faculty task force that charged the former administrator namesakes with backing campus segregation in the 1930s and ’40s.
Only one of the 12 regents, Abdul Omari, has voiced support for stripping the late leaders’ names from the buildings. Several others have sharply criticized the task force’s 125-page report on the administrators’ legacies, arguing it failed to address the role of the university’s governing board in excluding black students from U dorms.
The board also will weigh a resolution directing the administration to plan educational exhibits and events in one or more of the buildings acknowledging the complex legacies of the four former leaders: Presidents Lotus Coffman and Walter Coffey, Dean Edward Nicholson and Vice President William Middlebrook. Regents also will consider a statement affirming the task force research and urging incoming U President Joan Gabel to weigh how best to acknowledge and remedy past discrimination.
“By declining the President’s invitation to rename buildings, we do not want to suppress probing debate holding individuals accountable for their decisions as leaders of this University,” reads the statement, which like the resolutions obtained Thursday by the Star Tribune, is in draft form and could change.
The undergraduate student government, which has advocated for renaming Coffman Memorial Union since a 2017 exhibit called “A Campus Divided,” urged students to turn out for a sit-in protest during the Friday meeting. Its leaders pledged to continue pushing for name changes. Meanwhile, some faculty also urged colleagues to attend the meeting, at 1 p.m. in McNamara Alumni Center, to signal solidarity with task force members.
Last fall, Kaler and Provost Karen Hanson charged the task force, primarily made up of faculty, with examining the legacies of the four namesakes and issuing recommendations. The resulting report found all four played a role in keeping black students out of campus residence halls and, in the case of Nicholson, in surveilling students and faculty, with a focus on Jews.
One task force member, history professor William Jones, said he expected Kaler, who commissioned the report and backed its recommendations, to defend the task force more forcefully against regent accusations of academic dishonesty. In a letter to the campus community, Kaler and Hanson did issue a rare public rebuke of the regents after a March meeting at which some suggested faculty might have intentionally left out evidence that the board under Coffman and Coffey strongly supported segregated dorms — a charge task force leaders dismissed.
But Jones said that was not enough.
“His silence has put us in a difficult position,” he said. “We have been attacked. Our work has been dragged through the mud.”
Administrators, students and a dean’s group have decried the regents’ accusations against the task force, saying they have failed to offer evidence of academic dishonesty and have threatened to stifle free inquiry on campus.
Despite the pushback, Regent Michael Hsu has continued to insist that the university investigate whether task force members upheld the U’s academic standards. He said he will not drop the issue after Friday’s vote. He said he would oppose directing the administration to produce educational displays or events during the 2020-21 academic year — what he described as a “consolation prize” for renaming supporters.
“I don’t trust the administration to come up with anything that would describe our history accurately,” he said. “We haven’t finished the fact-finding yet.”
Hsu and other regents have pored over university and Minnesota Historical Society archives and held up documents such as 1935 regents minutes referencing unanimous board support for allowing only whites in residence halls — even as they reaffirmed a policy giving Coffman discretion over the housing issue.
Descendants of some former administrators also have criticized the process, arguing the task force should have given them a chance to speak on their late relatives’ behalf.
Regent Linda Cohen, who in March spoke movingly about discrimination her Jewish family faced when she was growing up in the Twin Cities, said she will vote in favor of keeping all four building names. She said she fully believes the task force report is accurate and comprehensive. But for her, the four former administrators’ failings did not entirely outweigh their contributions to the university, she said.
“That is our history, and we can make statements about how our values are so different now,” Cohen said. “Changing those names erases the problem instead of helping us learn from it.”
The regents Friday also are slated to ask the administration to recommend changes to the board’s renaming policy to streamline the process when regents confront the issue again.
Omari said he hasn’t polled his colleagues on the board, but it does appear he is the sole supporter of renaming. He said the task force did exhaustive research, and he dismissed the idea that former administrators should not be held accountable because their bosses on the governing board rallied behind segregation. He pointed to former U President Guy Ford, who desegregated the dorms before Coffey reverted to the policy under Coffman.
“Somebody who went along with what a board told him to do doesn’t deserve to have his name on a building,” Omari said.
The Minnesota Student Association sent an e-mail to students Thursday asking them to attend the meeting wearing white in support of renaming the buildings. Tala Alfoqaha, who leads the group’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee, said students don’t feel regents have truly listened to them during the renaming conversation. She said she and fellow students of color do not feel welcomed in Coffman Union, which many students have long taken to calling simply the student union.
Alfoqaha said students will continue to push to change the names of the buildings: “The question of renaming or unnaming to us is a question of when rather than if.”