“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” So wrote George Orwell in 1949, as if he had been reporting on the April 26 meeting of the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents. The special board meeting, hastily called to consider again the recommendation of President Eric Kaler to un-name four campus buildings based on the extensive research of a task force of scholars, was ultimately a fight about controlling the future by controlling interpretation of the past (“A campus stays divided: Despite outcry, regents vote against renaming campus buildings,” April 27).
How did this play out? The regents took turns condemning racism and anti-Semitism, whether it happens now or occurred in the past. Even those regents who previously had attacked the report of the President’s Task Force on Building Names and Institutional History and besmirched the integrity of the distinguished faculty who served on it acknowledged that racism and anti-Semitism had been present on the campus in the early 1900s, and roundly condemned it.
But who was responsible for the racist and anti-Semitic policies that led to those abuses? That’s where the rubber hit the road and the Board of Regents exerted its control on the past.
According to the mass of archival documents assembled in the “A Campus Divided” exhibit and additional independent research by the president’s task force, key university administrators in that era, including President Lotus Coffman, established and enforced Jim Crow policies in university housing and conducted surveillance and political suppression of progressive students, most of whom were Jewish. That’s why student leaders, along with the 1,500 students who signed a petition, demanded that the names of Coffman and three other administrators be removed from university buildings.
But Regents Michael Hsu, Darrin Rosha and Richard Beeson argued that these administrators could not have acted alone. Surely, they must have been directed to enforce discriminatory housing and student surveillance by the regents of the time, they argued. The administrators were just following orders!
Although members of the task force who did the research sat in the audience before them ready to address their questions, the regents insisted that not enough was known about the regents of the time. It took a minor audience revolt to force the regents to listen to Prof. John Wright, who described his family’s long experience of racial discrimination at the university in the first half of the 1900s.
The board’s lengthy, carefully wordsmithed resolution read, in part: “The question before us is not wholly centered upon the conduct of individuals … . Individual conduct often mirrors the best and worst of social norms.” Translated into plain English, it means: We won’t hold these administrators responsible for their leadership role in the racist and anti-Semitic activities that occurred under their watch. Thus, while all the regents condemned those activities, the three regents insisted relentlessly that no one could be held accountable, and that the four historical administrators should neither be held responsible nor have their names removed from their places of honor.
The regents control the university, and as Orwell emphasized, “who controls the present controls the past.” They used that power to control the interpretation of the past and voted, with the notable exception of Regent Abdul Omari, to keep the names of the four administrators in place.
But does it really matter what you call a building? Based on the vehemence of the three regents, it matters a great deal. And they’re right, because, as Orwell wrote, “who controls the past controls the future.” The regents are engaged in the same battle about the soul of this nation that is taking place on other campuses and throughout the American South. Their vote to keep the names of racist and anti-Semitic administrators in places of honor on the campus parallels the efforts of Southern racists to keep statues of Confederate heroes in places of honor in the public square.
Orwell was prescient. The fight over historic building names at the University of Minnesota is a symbolic battle over the future of the campus and the nation. Do we want a future of equality and inclusivity, or shall we continue to honor those who perpetrated the injustices of the past?
Steven Foldes is an independent research consultant and an adjunct associate professor at the University of Minnesota. He consulted on the exhibit “A Campus Divided: Progressives, Anticommunists, Racism, and Antisemitism at the University of Minnesota, 1930-1942.”