University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler is calling for renaming Coffman Memorial Union and three other Twin Cities campus buildings honoring former administrators who backed segregationist practices, according to a recent U study. But he also said he wants to allow time for the university community — and the families of those former leaders — to weigh in before a final decision by regents.
Kaler’s proposal, revealed Friday, echoes the recommendations of a campus task force that released its 125-page report last week. He will pitch the changes to the U’s governing board during its monthly meeting next week, with a decision slated for later this spring or summer. If regents back Kaler’s proposal, the U will change the names of campus buildings for historical reasons for the first time in its 167-year history.
“I entered this process with an open mind, and at this stage I believe that changing the names is the right path for the University of Minnesota,” Kaler said in a letter to students and employees.
Still, Kaler said he considers those recommendations as preliminary and continues to seek feedback from those on campus and the building namesakes’ relatives. The university said it has reached out to family members of all four former administrators and has spoken with relatives of two of them.
Former U President Lotus Coffman presided over a major university expansion but also excluded black students from campus housing and programs, the task force found. It also backed new names for three other buildings:
• Nicholson Hall, named after Edward Nicholson, the U’s first dean of student affairs from 1917 to 1941, who the report says discouraged political speech and student activism.
• Middlebrook Hall, named after William Middlebrook, who served in various administrative roles from 1925 to 1959, supporting practices that excluded minority and Jewish students, according to the report.
• Coffey Hall, named after 1940s U President Walter Coffey, who the report says backed policies segregating black students.
Kaler’s administration is suggesting that the university temporarily use the names “Student Union” for Coffman, “Agricultural Administration Building” for Coffey, “West Bank Residence Hall” for Middlebrook and “216 Pillsbury Drive” for Nicholson. In recent years, campuses across the country have grappled with decisions about the names of campus buildings and other landmarks, such as Confederate-era statues, invoking their controversial histories.
Some student leaders cheered Kaler’s support for renaming the buildings. Chloe Williams, a senior, has advocated for changing the names since seeing a 2017 exhibit titled “A Campus Divided,” which delved into the complicated legacies of the four former leaders.
Williams, who headed the Minnesota Student Association’s diversity and inclusion committee at the time, urged fellow members to see the exhibit; within weeks, the association passed a resolution calling on the U to drop “Coffman” from the student union’s name.
Williams said she questioned until recently if the university was moving slowly on the issue for fear of alienating donors or lawmakers. But she said the task force’s thorough report was worth the wait.
“I was pretty emotional when I read it,” she said. “I was really proud of my university.”
Some on campus and beyond have raised concerns about erasing university history with those renamings and questions about their cost.
University officials said Friday they do not have an estimate of the potential costs of renaming, which would vary depending on what exactly regents decide to do. Coffman’s name, for instance, is etched into the building’s stone facade, so the expense of renaming could differ significantly depending on whether regents go with a new name or simply drop “Coffman” from it.
James Mickus, who earned a master’s and Ph.D. in chemistry from the U in the 1960s, said the idea to rename the campus buildings is “absolute nonsense.” He said if the university makes that decision, he would stop contributing to its alumni association. He said any policies the former leaders promoted are inextricably tied into the context of their times, and it’s unfair to judge them by today’s standards.
“You don’t get ahead by throwing pebbles at the old-timers,” he said. “Every one of these people contributed, and they contributed very much.”
The university’s alumni association and foundation have heard very little so far about the possibility of renaming the campus buildings, said Patrick Stumpf, a spokesman for the university.
On Friday, many students at Coffman said they were at best vaguely aware of the issue and did not have a firm stance. Some, like freshman Patrick O’Hare, said the name has become ingrained, and dropping it or switching to a new name would take getting used to.
“I’ve been calling it Coffman way too long,” O’Hare said.
Others said that with the demands of their studies and jobs taking precedence, they haven’t had a chance to research the building namesakes and form strong opinions.
Alex Simpson, a senior in urban studies, said he supports changing Coffman’s name, but when it comes to the other three buildings, he said, “I think this should be talked about more. It doesn’t seem we’re quite ready to make a decision.”
But freshman Ethan Culver said he signed the student government pledge to stop using Coffman in the student union’s name and has encouraged friends to drop the name as well. Some have told him it would be a tough adjustment, but he said, “As a university we shouldn’t memorialize people who negatively impacted people of color on campus.”
Sophomore Rosalind Moore, a leader with the Black Student Union, awaited news of Kaler’s decision Friday in the group’s office at Coffman. She said she learned about the issue in class her freshman year and went on to research the former president’s legacy.
“This is the home of marginalized groups on campus,” she said of Coffman’s second floor. “But it’s a home inside a building named after a person who wouldn’t have let us here. This is supposed to be a safe space for everyone.”
Kaler has said he hopes the Board of Regents will make a decision on the issue before his successor, University of South Carolina Provost Joan Gabel, takes over in July. The U plans to form a permanent Advisory Committee on University History, which could consider renaming other buildings, including on the university’s four campuses around the state.
“This is significant and lasting work that deserves our careful consideration,” Kaler said.