The names of Coffman Memorial Union and three other Twin Cities campus buildings will stand, the University of Minnesota's governing board decided Friday following months of roiling debate.
Students, a faculty task force and U President Eric Kaler had called for renaming the buildings after a campus exhibit and a report charged their namesakes — all now-deceased university administrators during the 1930s and '40s — with backing residence hall segregation. But an overwhelming majority of the 12-member Board of Regents balked at stripping the former leaders' names from the buildings, citing contributions during their long tenures, regents' strong support for whites-only dorms at the time and a discomfort with applying today's standards to the first half of the last century.
Regents voted 10-1 in a special meeting to keep the names and unanimously supported exploring permanent exhibits and educational events in one or more of the buildings to acknowledge the former leaders' complicated legacies. (The board chairman, David McMillan, was hospitalized with a serious infection and did not vote, regents said.)
"I am not a good enough person to judge four people who gave significant service and significant time to the University of Minnesota," Regent Steve Sviggum said.
Dozens of students and faculty turned out in force to show support for renaming and for a campus task force that faced intense criticism from regents, who bashed it for failing to address head-on the U governing board's role. Supporters of renaming have argued that those former U leaders failed to heed calls from students and activists denouncing segregation at that time and to exercise moral leadership, possibly violating then-current state and federal laws, at least in spirit.
Audience members often interjected during the meeting, calling for more respect for faculty and assailing regents' reading of the historical record. In one dramatic moment, faculty and students gathered around retiring Prof. John Wright, who is black, to prevent campus security from removing him until he could address the board. Regent Dean Johnson, who chaired the meeting and at first said police would eject attendees who did not resume their seats, relented and allowed Wright to speak.
Wright, whose aunt was a campus activist during former President Lotus Coffman's tenure, said his policies had a chilling effect on the attendance of black students — a reality that is well-known among the state's black community.
"This is an issue of honor and institutional integrity, and nobody has a permanent lease on honor," Wright said, adding that a "conspiracy of silence" around the U's history is over.
In its 167 years of existence, the university has never changed the name of a campus building for historical reasons.
An exhibit called "A Campus Divided" set off the renaming conversation in 2017 by examining the legacies of the four former leaders: presidents Coffman and Walter Coffey, Dean Edward Nicholson and Vice President William Middlebrook. Last fall, Kaler and Provost Karen Hanson charged the task force, primarily made up of faculty, with examining the legacies of the four namesakes and issuing recommendations. The resulting 125-page report found all four played a role in keeping black students out of campus residence halls and, in the case of Nicholson, in surveilling students and faculty, with a focus on Jews.
But during the board's March meeting, some regents sharply criticized the report's findings, in some cases suggesting its members had intentionally left out exculpatory evidence. One regent, Michael Hsu, accused the task force of academic dishonesty and called for a formal investigation. Students, faculty leaders, deans and Kaler defended the task force publicly, though some members have said Kaler should have offered a more forceful, detailed defense.
Kaler told regents Friday that faculty had done "exceptional work" on the report; he also said he respects the regents' decision even though it went against his recommendation.
During Friday's meeting, Hsu and regents Darrin Rosha and Richard Beeson continued to question the quality and impartiality of the report, often to loud interruptions and laughs from the audience. Regents said the failure of the task force to address directly the role of a powerful board of regents at the time and the resulting constraints on administrators undermined the report's credibility, along with attribution issues and a string of now corrected errors in a draft report the task force had shared with the regents.
Some of their colleagues shot back, stressing they believe the task of historical research is better left to trained faculty.
Regent Abdul Omari, the only supporter of renaming on the board, sharply took his colleagues to task for what he called "insane" attacks on task force members.
"I can't remember a time when discrimination was ever OK," he said of the former administrators. "As a black man, I have to wonder how I would have been treated."
But other regents said they were not comfortable passing judgment on former leaders with the benefit of hindsight. Hsu noted Coffman's decision to launch the now defunct General College, which ultimately granted access to campus for numerous underrepresented students — an example, Hsu said, of contributions that cannot be discounted. Regent Peggy Lucas said renaming was "the easy answer," one that would allow the campus community to look away from troubling aspects of U history.
Regents also approved a statement voicing respect for the work of the task force and urging Joan Gabel, who will take over as president in July, to continue exploring ways to delve into the U's history. They asked the administration to recommend a clearer process for weighing renaming recommendations in the future.
Intense debates and protests over building names have erupted on university campuses nationwide in recent years. Some institutions have moved forward with renaming: 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 after student protests.
Chloe Williams, a U student who spearheaded a student government resolution to rename Coffman, said she was disheartened by the regents' decision. Along with other student leaders, Williams, who is black, vowed to continue pushing for renaming by engaging Gabel and regents who will fill four open seats on the board.
"It's not enough to just discuss our history; we have to act upon it," she said. "The regents were on the wrong side of history with this decision."
Chris Middlebrook, former Vice President Middlebrook's grandson, said the possibility of reviving efforts to rename Middlebrook Hall concerned him, though he was relieved by Friday's vote. Descendants of some building namesakes, as well as some regents, have argued the task force should have engaged with relatives — even as others such as Omari have said university leaders should have heard from family members of those affected by campus segregation.
Riv-Ellen Prell, the U professor who created the "A Campus Divided" exhibit, voiced disappointment with the decision not to act on renaming.
"There were real people who had real responsibility for these actions," she said. "Again, we have racism without racists."
Both supporters of renaming and some regents questioned if the special meeting was premature, taking place before the two sides had a chance to hash out their differences about the task force's report. Hsu unsuccessfully moved to table the vote.
But there was also a sense among regents that the highly divisive debate had become a distraction as university leaders are gearing up to tackle the budget for the next academic year, including Kaler's tuition proposal.
"If we all spend as much time on the budget," Hsu said, "we can solve some problems."