What’s in a name?
A new exhibit chronicling a controversial period at the University of Minnesota raises the question.
“A Campus Divided: Progressives, Anti-Communists, and Anti-Semitism at the University of Minnesota, 1930-1942” unearths long buried information about the efforts of university administrators to segregate housing, spy on mostly Jewish students and quash student activism.
The names behind the most egregious acts are some of the best known at the U, including former President Lotus D. Coffman and Edward Nicholson, who served as the U’s first dean of student affairs. Both served during a turbulent time when issues of race, equality, war and students’ rights roiled the campus. Both have prominent campus buildings named after them.
Now, as controversies over Confederate monuments rage and names of slave owners are being removed from buildings, streets and lakes, the exhibit is likely to raise questions about whether well-known U administrators involved in discriminatory policies of the past should continue to be memorialized.
“We have made conscious frankly every name on this campus now,” said Riv-Ellen Prell, professor emerita of American studies, who devoted the past year of her retirement to researching the exhibit, along with co-curator Sarah Atwood, a Ph.D. candidate. “There is a real sense of, ‘We need to talk.’ ”
Student leaders, who were invited to an early tour, are talking. Many said they were shocked and saddened by the exhibit, which relies on archival correspondence, secret communiqués, and articles from the Minnesota Daily and other newspapers.
“We walk through Coffman Memorial Union every day,” said Shantal Pai, a U senior and chairwoman of the Student Senate. “It was really surprising to see someone whose name we know as a place of socialization and getting lunch to be someone who kept students out of University of Minnesota [housing] because of the color of their skin.”
Senior Erik Hillesheim agreed. “Honestly, it was pretty horrifying and pretty sad to see how long the University of Minnesota was on the wrong side of history,” said Hillesheim, vice president of the undergraduate student body government.
For its part, U leadership has been supportive of an exhibit that airs the school’s dirty laundry.
“The University’s history is not without faults, but in staying true to our mission it is crucial that we acknowledge past wrongs and bring them to the light of inquiry,” U President Eric Kaler said in a statement. The exhibit, he said, “sheds light on a critical piece of our history that some may find uncomfortable and unfamiliar.”
Coffman: A proponent of segregation
As president, Coffman was a champion for liberal arts education, overseeing the expansion of the U’s academic offerings and enrollment. It was his goal that the U would one day have a building that could become the center of social life on campus.
But during his tenure (1920-38), he also created a system of student segregation, actively barring black students from living among white students in taxpayer-funded campus housing.
In 1931, a black student attempted to move into the first men’s dormitory and was promptly asked to leave. Coffman defended the action, saying that segregation was the preference of students of color.
“No colored student has applied before for admission to the University dormitories,” Coffman wrote. “The good sense and sound judgment of the colored students and their parents with regard to this matter has been a source of constant gratification. … The races have never lived together nor have they ever sought to live together.”
Coffman went on to block black students from campus housing, up until his death in 1938.
Today, his name graces the student union, which houses the offices of student organizations, including those of minority groups.
Maggie Towle said seeing the exhibit has changed her understanding of the man behind the building.
“Coffman was behind the movement to build this brand-new student union, which was fabulous,” said Towle, interim vice provost for student affairs and dean of students. “But when he talked about creating a space for all students, we now know that he really didn’t mean all students.”
‘Dean Nick’ Nicholson — and spy?
Anti-Communist fervor before World War II led Nicholson, a former chemistry professor and longtime dean of student affairs (1917-41) lovingly known on campus as “Dean Nick,” to gather information on “radical” students.
He passed that information on to Ray P. Chase, a Minnesota political operative who proclaimed the U to be infested with Communists. Some of that information ultimately landed in FBI files on the students.
Antiwar student activists, especially those who were Jewish, were targeted in Nicholson’s reports and named as agitators, among them students who went on to have illustrious careers in politics, science and journalism.
A report marked “Confidential” lists “radical leaders” at the U from 1934 to 1937.
On the list: Robert Loevinger, who became a pioneer in radiation treatment of cancer, is called a “campus agitator. Marxist. Jew.” Minnesota Daily writer Eric Sevareid, who became a famous war correspondent, is described as: “Radical. Pro-Communist. Anti-Fascist.” Minnesota Daily editorial director Joe Toner: “Jew. Radical agitator.”
The Center for Jewish Studies is now housed in Nicholson Hall.
Leslie Morris, director of the center, would like to hold a program about Nicholson’s involvement in surveillance of Jewish students. She’d also like to see a plaque installed in her building that adds to Nicholson’s story.
“Space matters and names matter, and narratives get shaped by the space,” Morris said.
Guy Stanton Ford, students and other unsung heroes
While other administrators also are called out, there is one U official whom the exhibit reveals as a hero: Guy Stanton Ford.
When he succeeded Coffman as president, Ford immediately overturned Coffman’s segregation policies.
“I could not conceive of the responsible officers of this state University supported by all classes taking discriminatory action based on creed, or color or political faith,” Ford wrote in 1937. “Our classrooms are freely open to any students who conform to the purposes and procedures of an institution of learning.”
When Ford left the university in 1941, Walter Coffey succeeded him and the U reverted to Coffman’s segregation policies.
The other heroes of the exhibit are the students.
They challenged the administration by speaking out and staging protests, but were repeatedly muffled, the exhibit shows. Still, they managed to develop deep and lasting alliances across religion and race, as well as with leaders from the wider African-American community. And they kept fighting segregation until it was ended on campus in 1954.
But the U — its leadership, its faculty, its students — continues to struggle with race and equality.
“The issues that the exhibit addresses I’ve been dealing with for many years,” said John Wright, a professor in African-American and African studies and former student activist at the U.
“This unpalatable history is being brought to light, and what’s important now is how the institution responds,” said Wright, who consulted on the exhibit.
One way the university is responding is by offering a new history course in the spring that links the U’s past with the modern-day disputes that played out in Charlottesville, Va., where protests over removing a Confederate statue turned violent.
Whether biographies of past leaders will be updated online, whether buildings will be renamed is unknown.
But Prell said she hopes that the exhibit might inspire a new generation of student activists to fight for justice on campus.
“We are showing that we need to remember this legacy,” she said. “When people walk through here and see this was part of the university’s history, this will empower them to know we can never stop fighting.”
A Campus Divided
When: Ends Nov. 30.
Where: Elmer L. Andersen Library Atrium Gallery, 222 21st Av. S., Mpls.
Event: (Sold out) Panelists Riv-Ellen Prell, professor emerita of American studies; Sarah Atwood, Ph.D. candidate in American studies; and John Wright, professor of African-American and African studies and English, discuss the exhibit at 5:45 p.m. Sept. 13 in Andersen Library Room 120.