The University of Minnesota is weighing a new approach to examining its history as an institution — one that avoids a repeat of last spring’s bruising debate over renaming four Twin Cities campus buildings.
A near unanimous Board of Regents voted in April against renaming Coffman Memorial Union and three other buildings named after administrators who led the university in the 1930s and ’40s, when black students were excluded from campus dorms. That move, which went against the recommendation of then President Eric Kaler and a faculty task force, did not bring closure: Regents sharply criticized the quality of a 125-page report the task force produced, and some faculty took both regents and administration to task as the bid to rename the buildings unraveled.
Now, Kaler’s successor, Joan Gabel, is setting out to help the U move on from the contentious episode and prepare to better handle future proposals to rename campus buildings. The board tasked her with planning permanent displays and educational activities to address campus segregation and other troubling aspects of the university’s history, as well as with helping to overhaul the regents’ renaming policy. During a brief discussion Friday, she told regents she has a plan.
“Today marks a new beginning in our work towards a greater understanding of our complex institutional history,” Gabel said.
Also on Friday, Gabel released a statement in support of free speech on campus. It said that while the university condemns speech that promotes intolerance and discrimination, providing a forum for the airing of diverse viewpoints is “part of who we are.”
Gabel said in December that she would bring to regents examples of how peer higher education institutions have handled renaming campus buildings and suggest next steps, including possible revisions to a policy on renaming that regents agree needs more clarity and specificity.
Also this year, the university will begin hosting a series of lectures and other events to spur conversations about university history.
Gabel said the U would explore new coursework and research into institutional history as well as more resources for its archives and libraries.
The university had planned to launch a new course titled “Prejudice and Protest at the U” this fall, but a spokesman said the class was postponed at least until the spring semester because of low enrollment numbers.
Gabel said she hopes to bring to the regents a proposed new policy on renaming in February, with the board tentatively slated to vote on it next June. She said she is forming a “president’s collaborative” of faculty, students and others to advise her as she tackles possible activities and displays commemorating university history.
Regent Michael Hsu, a critic of the faculty task force who last spring called for an investigation into its work, argued the U cannot move on without revisiting that report. He and other regents had criticized the report for failing to fully explore the role the U’s governing board at the time played in maintaining segregated residence halls and for painting what they saw as an overly harsh picture of the former administrators’ legacies. Though task force members have acknowledged the limitations of their inquiry on a tight timeline, they and the Kaler administration stood staunchly by their work.
But Hsu said lingering questions about the former leaders’ legacies would hamper upcoming conversations about university history.
“We are doing a disservice to our institution by having false narratives out there,” he said. “We are jumping the gun a little bit.”
Regent Steve Sviggum said that he hopes the bid to devise a clearer process for considering renamings would not get bogged down in the “higher education process of committee after committee.” He argued for adopting the approach of Stanford University, which last year renamed a pedestrian mall and a building bearing the name of Father Junipero Serra, the 18th-century founder of the California mission school system, which victimized American Indians.
“I am not opposed to being the Stanford of the Midwest,” he said.
Regent Richard Beeson also stressed the need for a better process, saying that pushing faculty to produce a report and recommendations on an “unfortunate” deadline had been unfair to them. He urged Gabel’s administration to seek a balance of perspectives in upcoming conversations, including those of late administrators’ descendants.
“These people have complex legacies; we know that,” he said.
Task force members could not be reached Friday or declined to comment. Gabel said she met with task force members to seek their advice.
Amy Pittenger, who leads the Faculty Senate, said recently that faculty, students and the provost’s office have been discussing the forums on university history and inclusion slated to kick off later this fall.
“We want to make sure there’s a clear purpose to these events,” she said.