Coffman Union is an integral part of our campus — a center for students to work, eat and socialize. Many of us don’t think about the man named Coffman that the Union memorializes, or assume he’s just some dead white dude. But this particular dead white dude, Lotus Coffman, the fifth president of the University of Minnesota, deserves particular consideration. During his run, he enforced segregated student housing (despite its being illegal in Minnesota at the time), rejected student protests and surveilled Jewish and leftist students.
A member of the Minnesota Student Association created a petition, “Rename Coffman Memorial Union,” on change.org (which you can still sign), and will vote on a resolution to rename Coffman on Tuesday, March 6. This comes in the wake of last semester’s “A Campus Divided” exhibit, which displayed some profoundly dishonorable aspects of the University’s history and connected familiar names like Coffman, Nicholson and Middlebrook with administrators who implemented biased policies.
This attempt by the MSA to rename Coffman is a crucial step in reconciling with the history of our University by asking who we want to memorialize, what we value and ultimately, what we want our legacy to be. The student union bearing Coffman’s name is an expression of power, supporting those who wanted to tout Coffman as an honorable man with an inspirational legacy.
There is always natural opposition to change; when Lake Calhoun in Uptown was undergoing its name change to the lake’s Dakota name, Bde Maka Ska, one group said that “Lake Calhoun is the first victim of what will be a tsunami of extremist name-change advocacy.” This statement begs the question: what’s so extreme about not wanting to honor dead racists?
Those against such “name-change advocacy” might argue for the preservation of history, but in considering this point, we should ask whose history we are preserving, and why. A person being memorialized means just that — they are someone who is worthy of being remembered. Coffman is just one example of all the racist memorials across our country that are preserving a history of white supremacy. We can, and should, preserve Coffman’s memory by discussing him and his legacy elsewhere; attempting to whitewash the past isn’t the point here. Renaming Coffman is simply a refusal to honor the man’s memory by memorializing him on one of the most-used buildings on campus, one that houses various cultural groups and MSA itself. Coffman’s legacy requires proper contextualization, which is impossible to do when the building simply bears his name. Remember Coffman and other bigoted administrators through exhibits, informative plaques — not through giving them the anonymity and omniscience of a building name.
This attempt by MSA to rename Coffman is significant simply by virtue of promoting dialogue around shameful aspects of our campus history and their legacies. It’s encouraging us to question dominant historical narratives and ask what values we want to promote in the present. I think of the University’s “We all belong here” campaign — if it is inclusion and acceptance that we proclaim to value, how do we show our commitment to that as an institution?