Despite a vocal and angry crowd, and a recommendation from outgoing University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler to the contrary, the school’s Board of Regents voted to keep the names of four former UMN leaders on buildings despite their anti-Semitic and racist past.
A full crowd of vocal attendees were at the meeting on Friday afternoon. Regent Dean Johnson, who chaired the meeting because current Chair Dave McMillan had been hospitalized, said that regardless of the outcome, the conversation will continue.
“Everyone’s voices are not only welcome but necessary,” Johnson said.
The buildings that were recommended for renaming are the Coffman Memorial Union, Nicholson Hall, Middlebrook Hall, and Coffey Hall. The 125-page report from the University of Minnesota Task Force on Building Names and Institutional History – which recommended the renaming of four campus buildings, was released in February. The Board of Regents first discussed the issue on March 8, but declined to take action at that time. However two regents were critical of the work done on the task force. Michael Hsu said that the report “did not come as fair as he expected,” and Darrin Rosha said that the claims of Nicholson’s anti-Semitism lacked research citations.
Regent Abdul Omari, the lone vote against not renaming the buildings, was critical of members of the Board of Regents, but didn’t name names.
“The task force won’t engage with us because of our behavior at the March meeting,” he said. “People spend volunteer time (on this work), and in the way I observe it, they have been attacked. What I see is a group of well-trained faculty who have done research to connect the dots.”
Johnson did have to recess the meeting after more than 90 minutes when the crowd got too riled up in their pursuit to have Professor John Wright, the founder of the school’s African-American studies department, to speak.
Wright was allowed to speak after the recess, where he gave a historical context of the African-American students at the U. He also pointed out that Coffman didn’t believe people’s names should go on buildings.
“He believed they should have functional names,” Wright said. “To some extent, in his case at least, we’re engaged in a strangely ironic enterprise in opposition to his own expressed and documented preferences.”
The task force report was the second step in the process that actually began in the fall of 2017. The Minnesota Student Association passed a resolution in 2018 to rename Coffman.
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.