School president Eric Kaler will make his recommendation to the Board of Trustees on March 8; that group will ultimately decide the fate of the buildings.
“The report itself is truly exceptional,” said Riv-Ellen Prell, emerita professor of American Studies and former chair of the Jewish Studies department. Prell’s November 2017 exhibit “A Campus Divided,” detailed the decades of racism and anti-Semitism at the University of Minnesota and helped start the discussion. “I think what makes it exceptional is that it’s based on a foundation of extensive research.”
The buildings in line to be renamed are the Coffman Memorial Union, Nicholson Hall, Middlebrook Hall, and Coffey Hall. The task force’s report is the second step in the process that began in the fall of 2017. Graduate Student Emma Dunn, who was Minnesota Hillel‘s representative on the Minnesota Student Association which passed a resolution in 2018 to rename Coffman, also sat on the Coleman Committee which studied the issue and gave direction to the task force.
“It was the first time anyone had talked about renaming buildings on that scale,” Dunn said of the Coleman Committee. “It was a lot to tackle, but when you see the process, you can see why each name constitutes an exceptional circumstance.”
President Lotus Coffman was the architect of publicly financed, segregated student housing at the University of Minnesota, despite segregation being illegal under Minnesota law and uncommon in northern higher education institutions. Dean Edward Nicholson exhibited anti-Semitism and racism in his actions as a University administrator, often targeting Jewish and Black students whom he labeled “communists.” William T. Middlebrook worked on behalf of the University to support policies and practices that discriminated against students of color and Jewish students with respect to access to housing. President Walter Coffey and his administration supported policies that attempted to exclude and segregate Blacks, ensuring that the University he presided over was a less equitable institution than the one he inherited from his predecessor in 1941.
“I appreciated the report saying this is a dialogue with the past to look at and grapple with,” Dunn said. “They worked within structures and systems of the time, but I believe they had a choice. They had significant power. It’s complex and we can’t look back with only the lens of today, but (the report) shows with evidence and deliberation, they weren’t a product of the times.”
Prell said that she isn’t sure what Kaler will recommend; he could recommend all, some, or none of the buildings be renamed. No matter how it’s decided, one of the recommendations is that all the buildings should have a display for who the building is named after.
“Whatever decision is made about naming, the whole truth should be told,” Prell said. “Whatever the outcome, we can’t forget this history.”