Many have responded to University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler’s preliminary recommendations to “un-name” four campus buildings, claiming that this action is unfair because it holds leaders accountable for university policies that were acceptable in their own time. The judgment of the present rips their lives out of context, some say, and worse, smacks of “political correctness.”
Those of us who created the exhibition “A Campus Divided: Progressives, Anticommunists, Racism and anti-Semitism at the University of Minnesota, 1930-1945,” which launched this process, differ with that assessment. The exhibition and the evidence on which it is based is at acampusdivided.umn.edu.
Our title alone clarifies this issue. Our research team examined hundreds of documents open to the public at the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota Historical Society. We reviewed newspaper coverage in the state, on the campus, and in the African-American and Jewish communities. We learned that the administrators whose names appear on these buildings shared values that were by no means embraced by all faculty, students and administrators at the university, nor leaders and ordinary citizens in the state, at the time. Every issue we researched — segregated taxpayer-funded student housing, the right of students to hold a variety of political opinions, and the right to protest on campus — was widely debated. Administrators had power, but they did not hold a monopoly on “common” values.
Here is a crucial case in point. Three university presidents addressed the issue of segregated housing from 1931 to 1945. All were male, white and Midwestern, and about the same ages. President Lotus D. Coffman was the architect of segregated student housing, and resisted increasing opposition from many students, faculty and community groups. For instance, Medical School Dean Elias Lyon challenged Coffman when an African-American nursing student was removed from the new nurses’ dormitory in 1933 because of her race.
President Guy Stanton Ford followed Coffman, and in 1937 immediately changed those rules. He insisted that all children of Minnesota taxpayers, regardless of race, had the right to live in campus housing. He was forced to reiterate his policy when some administrators resisted. Then in 1942, President Walter Coffey reverted to segregated student housing.
Which of these men reflected the values of his time? Why were all of their legacies homogenized? Why not recognize those people who were on “the right side of history,” rather than those who created terrible injustices that were recognized then as now? How should we honor those who struggled for justice and whom the university has not recognized?
The University of Minnesota honors Dean Edward E. Nicholson, who spied on students and faculty with whom he disagreed politically, gave information to the FBI, and worked closely, sometimes to the detriment of the university, with a Republican operative whose “America First” campaign in the 1930s targeted Jewish activists as un-American because of their commitment to the Farmer-Labor Party. His work was secret, hidden from the public eye, and designed to influence the appointment of regents and a state election. Should the students and faculty members, overwhelmingly Jewish, whose careers and futures he endangered, be forgotten? Should we continue to honor his memory?
Those of us who created this exhibition are grateful to President Kaler, Vice President and Provost Karen Hanson, the Minnesota Student Association, and the dozens of scholars, students and alumni who have examined the accuracy of the record. Many looked at universities across North America that have engaged in thoughtfully rethinking their histories. Like so many in this country, they too considered how to understand history in light of the present.
As a state and a nation, we must stop dismissing this important process as a misguided effort to impose the values of the present on the deeds of those who were leaders in the past. This is not “political correctness.” We need to embrace the fact that every time period has been marked by struggles for justice for all Americans. We tell that story best not only by renaming buildings, which may be one important approach, but by continuing to reveal what actually happened in the past, and by holding ourselves accountable for learning the facts and understanding the ongoing struggle for justice.
Riv-Ellen Prell is an emerita professor for American studies at the University of Minnesota, and co-curator of the exhibition “A Campus Divided: Progressives, Anticommunists, Racism and anti-Semitism at the University of Minnesota, 1930-1945.”