Descendants of some late University of Minnesota leaders involved in a debate about renaming campus buildings are going on the offensive, saying the process excluded their voices and unfairly maligned their relatives.
On Friday, several university regents echoed those concerns with sharply worded rebukes of the process so far. A majority on the board wants to see more research before its members make a decision about renaming Coffman Memorial Union and three other buildings, said its chairman, David McMillan.
Last week, President Eric Kaler tentatively recommended that the university's governing board strip the names of the former administrators from campus buildings because they backed policies that segregated student housing or targeted Jews at the U. His proposal seconded the recommendations of a university task force's 125-page report as well as calls by student leaders to rename Coffman.
Kaler said a key next step would be hearing from families of the former U leaders, in an effort that could set a high-stakes precedent at the U, which has never renamed a building for historical reasons.
Some regents questioned if the task force, made up largely of U faculty, had omitted crucial exonerating evidence or read too much into documents.
"I want to make sure we don't sacrifice fairness and integrity to reach an end in support of other values that are very prescient right now," said Regent Darrin Rosha.
But a couple of regents praised the task force's report as thorough and fair. Abdul Omari said it offers compelling evidence of overt discrimination by the four men in the 1930s and '40s: former U presidents Lotus Coffman and Walter Coffey, former Dean Edward Nicholson and former Comptroller and Vice President William Middlebrook.
"I don't see a context or a time in which that is OK," he said.
Descendants of two former administrators wrote regents in recent days to voice dismay with the renaming process.
Chris Middlebrook, William Middlebrook's grandson, and other family members had asked repeatedly to meet with the university task force and with Kaler. Middlebrook said they wanted to give his grandfather a voice in what struck them as a trial of his reputation and legacy.
Middlebrook says the family, which has deep ties to the U, landed a meeting with Kaler later this month, but only after the president had weighed in on the renaming issue.
"My grandfather deserved better than this character assassination without any ability for anyone to represent him," he said.
The report says Middlebrook wielded enormous power during his 33 years on campus and actively backed policies excluding black students from university housing. He also played a positive role in growing the campus and pushing to make the university more affordable.
Chris Middlebrook, a retired attorney, says his grandfather followed policies set by his superiors. The task force report says that when former President Guy Ford stepped in, he wrote Middlebrook that the university would welcome black students in the dorms and went on to publicize that letter — a move the task force interpreted as a tacit rebuke of Middlebrook. But Chris Middlebrook says there is no evidence that his grandfather opposed the change or that he resisted when Coffey's successor, James Morrill, did away with segregated housing.
Catherine Holtzclaw, Edward Nicholson's granddaughter-in-law, said she had asked Regent Richard Beeson, her family's banker, to share with the task force letters of appreciation Nicholson got at his retirement. Her family — packed with U graduates — had not heard back until last week, when an official said Kaler would meet with them.
"I'm not sure what going to see him is going to get us other than angry," she said.
The task force report charges Nicholson, dean from 1917 until his retirement in 1941, surveilled student activists and compiled lists of "Jew agitators" that he shared with the FBI and others. The report also says Nicholson, nicknamed "Dean Nick," had a reputation for caring deeply about students.
The Star Tribune reached Coffman's great-grandson, who said he and his siblings have no comment on the renaming push, of which they were not aware. The newspaper could not reach descendants of Coffey.
On Friday, the co-chairs of the university task force — law and history professor Susanna Blumenthal and John Coleman, dean of the College of Liberal Arts — told regents they dug deeply into the historical context of the former leaders' actions. They acknowledged widespread discrimination against blacks and Jews in housing and employment in the Twin Cities at the time.
But they also said many on and off campus were calling on the U to exercise moral leadership on these issues, which the administrators repeatedly failed to do. Keeping their names on campus buildings would be out of step with today's key university values of diversity and inclusion, they said.
Regents debate report
But regents such as Michael Hsu said they had pored over documents in the university archives and believe the report left out references in Coffman's correspondence about a unanimous governing board that backed segregated campus housing. The task force report does not touch on the role of Fred Snyder, the influential board chairman.
Beeson said the report helps add complexity to a "sanitized version" of U history. But he said descendants should have been contacted sooner and some of the leaders' accomplishments given more weight in the report, including Coffman's launch of the now defunct General College, which allowed many minority and other underrepresented students access to the U.
Rosha argued the report includes some strong damning statements without citing sources.
But a visibly indignant Omari bristled at the suggestion that university faculty had produced shoddy scholarship and urged Rosha to write an alternative report. He said the board stands to send a powerful message to students and others: "This report is looking forward rather than rewriting the past."
The task force co-chairs said documents suggest the Board of Regents gave the presidents significant leeway on these policies, pointing to Ford's move to break with them during his time at the helm.
A string of universities have moved in recent years to rename buildings after reckoning with their namesakes' complicated legacies. Last year Duke stripped from a campus building the name of Julian Carr, a major donor and Ku Klux Klan supporter. Yale, after at first deciding to keep former Vice President John C. Calhoun's name on a building, reversed itself in 2017 following student protests.
Kaler said his administration will work with the task force co-chairs to respond to concerns and suggest next steps. He had previously said he wants the board to decide before incoming U President Joan Gabel takes over in July.
"I'd say it's more important that we get this right than fast," Rosha said.