A standoff over a University of Minnesota push to rename campus buildings is escalating into a war of words pitting regents against top administrators, as well as student and faculty leaders.
In a letter to the campus community, the U's president and provost included a rare public rebuke of regents who sharply criticized a campus task force report, which called for stripping the names of former administrators from Coffman Memorial Union and three other buildings. Faculty leaders, a deans' group and the U student government have echoed that critique, suggesting some regents were disrespectful to academics on the task force.
Unchastened, regents have pushed back, with one, Michael Hsu, calling for an investigation into whether the task force members intentionally left out exculpatory evidence in making a case that the late administrators backed campus housing segregation and other racist practices in the 1930s and '40s.
"I think it's disrespectful to submit a report like this and expect us to accept it without question," he said.
Although others on the U's governing board balk at launching an investigation, most agree they need more information to make a decision on renaming the buildings. Now the university is grappling with what the next steps should be.
Last fall, U President Eric Kaler and Provost Karen Hanson charged a task force made up primarily of faculty to examine the legacies of the four late namesakes — presidents Lotus Coffman and Walter Coffey, Dean Edward Nicholson and Vice President William Middlebrook — and issue recommendations. The resulting 125-page report said they were all implicated in backing the exclusion of black students from university dorms or, in the case of Nicholson, in surveilling Jewish faculty and students.
Kaler backed the report's recommendations to remove their names from campus buildings, pending meetings with their descendants. But during a March board meeting that ran out of time before task force co-chairs could fully address concerns, some regents did not mince words. They questioned why the report largely failed to address the role of the U's governing board and suggested the university should have engaged relatives sooner.
For Hsu, a prime example of what he sees as troubling omissions are the July 1935 Board of Regents minutes. They say the board reaffirmed a policy giving Coffman discretion over the housing issue — even as its members unanimously opined that the U should continue to allow only whites in residence halls.
The task force report does reference a letter Coffman wrote to campus advocates for integration after that meeting. But, says Hsu, even after the task force edited that portion of the report, it still does not fully capture the board's strong backing.
After the meeting, Hsu wrote to board chairman David McMillan saying he feels the task force intentionally left out evidence that the former leaders were up against a strong, unified board on this issue, suggesting "a case for academic dishonesty that can't be overlooked."
The university said the task force co-chairs could not comment Monday: College of Liberal Arts Dean John Coleman had a full schedule, and Susanna Blumenthal, a professor of history and law, could not be reached. But they have rejected the idea that the task force went into its work with any agenda. They have noted the administration did not direct them to explore the role of regents at the time, which they found to be limited.
A number of campus groups have since come to the task force's defense. In a letter to students and employees last week, Kaler and Hanson said regents raised valid questions, but their discussion also "reflected a lack of respect for the efforts and sincerity and integrity of our distinguished faculty."
The Minnesota Student Association, which passed a resolution last spring that called for dropping Coffman's name from the student union, voiced disappointment with the regents' reluctance to act quickly on renaming.
"At a certain point, we must stop asking what research is left to do regarding the damage and start asking what actions we can take to alleviate it," student leaders said in a statement.
Faculty leaders also wrote to the board with concerns and a request to hold a special meeting. Amy Pittenger, the head of the faculty senate, said it was difficult to watch that regents meeting and see colleagues denied an opportunity to respond to strong criticism.
She objected to an analogy some regents made between the work of the task force and a trial of the former administrators.
"We're one community; we're all trying to make the best collective decision," she said.
In an apologetic letter to the co-chairs, McMillan himself described the board discussion he presided over as "surprising and disappointing."
Regent Darrin Rosha, another task force critic, said he is unmoved by this pushback. He said the co-chairs had a list of regent questions in advance and had written the board to say they would come prepared to address them and discuss "the limitations that came with their brisk deadlines."
He said he wants to help with additional research. He pointed to Middlebrook, saying the task force had made a leap in surmising his position on segregation from several brief letters.
In corrections to its original report, the task force did make changes opting for more neutral language on Middlebrook, such as removing a reference that he "took a side" on the issue.
Rosha and fellow Regent Richard Beeson said they do not support an investigation into the task force, but do expect a written response from it addressing the board's questions.
McMillan said he is working to find a way forward. He noted some on campus have said Kaler, who is meeting with descendants of some former administrators this month, should also talk to families of students who were affected by U policies at the time.
Some regents said they have come to question a goal to make a decision before Kaler steps down in July. Said Beeson: "This is just too important of an issue not to do our due diligence."