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Examining the past: UMN efforts to rename buildings among longest in nation

The University has taken longer than other schools in handling its racist history.
Passersby walk next to Coffman Union on Monday, Oct. 29, 2018. 
Image by Jasmin Kemp

Passersby walk next to Coffman Union on Monday, Oct. 29, 2018. 

The University of Minnesota’s efforts to reevaluate four buildings on campus named after controversial figures have become among the longest in the country. 

The University’s work to examine its racist history is part of a nationwide reckoning about the legacy of discrimination in higher education. But, after another delay to a yearlong deliberative process, the University has yet to come to a conclusion, or even a recommendation, about renaming buildings. 

The University’s renaming process is the longest out of ten large universities that have undertaken similar efforts, like renaming buildings and removing monuments. 

Yale University took six months to remove John C. Calhoun’s name in 2017. The University of Pittsburgh renamed its public health building in six months. Maryland University changed its football stadium, named after a former president who supported segregation, in less than three months. 

So far, it’s taken the University two different committees and 16 months to determine the fate of four buildings: Coffman Memorial Union, Coffey Hall, Nicholson Hall and Middlebrook Hall. 

This month, the committee responsible for recommending name changes to Coffman and three other buildings pushed back their deadline, marking the third missed deadline in four months. 

After blowing past their latest deadline in mid-January, the Task Force on Building Names and Institutional History “asked for more time in order to fully complete their work and deliver a comprehensive final report,” said a University spokesperson in an emailed statement to the Minnesota Daily. John Coleman, co-chair of the task force, was not made available for an interview. 

President Eric Kaler, who convened the committee in early October, expects a final report before presenting at the Board of Regents’ February meeting. A final decision on renaming Coffman is expected before Kaler leaves the presidency on June 30, though the timeline is unclear.

“I think that they’re a little bit afraid to make a decision because there are so many factors playing into what the consequences could be,” said University senior Chloe Williams, who started a petition to rename Coffman last year. The petition has received nearly 5,000 signatures.

Williams said she thinks changing the name could cause backlash from donors, legislators and community members, who may pull their support for the University. 

Kaler has acknowledged the process’ slow pace, which has caused some University members to raise concerns with the administration’s lengthy timeline.

“As far as I know, we’ve never renamed a building in the 162 years of history. So, I am being cautious,” Kaler said in September. “That may be slow, but we will get there.”  

Addressing history, without erasing it

In 2003, Brown University began investigating its past, resulting in a more than 100-page report on the school’s ties to slavery and acknowledgement of its full history.

Since Brown, schools have taken a variety of approaches to address the past, from the University of Oregon stripping an ex-KKK leader’s name from its dorm to the University of Texas-Austin taking down Confederate statues after the Charleston church shooting.

As colleges across the country confront complicated histories and controversial figures — often catalyzed by student protests — school administrators are faced with questions about how to best redress past wrongdoings, without erasing history.

Choosing to remove building names or take down monuments can be a complicated process  involving several rounds of committee meetings and months of deliberation. 

Northwestern University history professor Leslie Harris said these efforts are linked to the post-WWII expansion of higher education to include more women, people of color and minority groups. 

“When you bring new people into old institutions, they look around and say ‘well, why is this here?’” Harris said.

For Harris, the decision to remove a name depends on each institution and their unique relationships with historical figures. 

“How we decide, not so much to honor them, but to recognize their role in history, good and bad, I think that’s really the question. How do we make available all parts of that history?” she said. 

Harris said that schools may choose to address their history in others ways, such as increasing diversity outreach efforts, installing plaques that give a more complete history about monuments or leading new educational projects.

The University of Minnesota’s renaming process followed the 2017 “Campus Divided” exhibit, which highlighted Lotus Coffman’s and other administrators’ work toward segregated student housing and surveillance of black and Jewish students.

In response, the University appointed back-to-back task forces, the first of which laid out five broad “guiding principles” for naming buildings — change, diversity, preservation, exceptionality and deliberation — saying that removing names should only happen in outstanding circumstances.

Yale used a similar process to change a residential college named after former U.S. Vice President John C. Calhoun, a vocal supporter of slavery. It looked to determine “whether the namesake principal legacy fundamentally conflicts with the university’s mission.” 

Yale history professor John Lewis Gaddis, who helped recommend removing Calhoun’s name, said the guidelines were effective to determine when to go forward with a name change.

“Our main challenge in renaming was knowing where to stop. Yale’s campus is full of buildings named for people — almost all men — who, by today’s standards, would be politically incorrect: that’s true of Elihu Yale himself, a slave owner for whom the university was named,” Gaddis said in an email to the Minnesota Daily.

At the University of Pittsburgh, graduate students petitioned to change a building named after the surgeon general who oversaw the infamous Tuskegee and Guatemala experiments, which involved withholding treatment, or intentionally giving STI’s, to research subjects.

Public health postdoctoral student Beth Shaaban said Pitt’s “dispassionate” committee process was incomplete, which she criticized for focusing more on conversations about historical relativism, rather than committee input. 

“The University wanted to think that a decision could be made based on a compilation … and the weighing of the facts,” Shaaban said. “That’s not how decisions are made.”

Shaaban supported renaming the hall for practical reasons in addition to philosophical ones: to ensure people from all communities felt comfortable working with public health practitioners.  

“For me, it’s a matter of what is going on in the here and now, and what is right in the here and now,” she said. 

Other schools, however, have decided against removing the names of figures with ambivalent histories. 

Princeton University kept Woodrow Wilson’s name, going against student demands to remove the former president’s name from buildings on campus because of his segregationist views. Instead, university leaders called on the school to be more honest and transparent about Wilson’s mixed legacy. 

At the University, calls for renaming Coffman and other buildings have mostly come from students and others on campus.  

University of Minnesota graduate student Emma Dunn worked on the Minnesota Student Association’s resolution to rename Coffman last year. 

Dunn said there a wide variety of views on Coffman’s legacy and whether the University should remove his name. Although she supports a name change, Dunn said the University could take other measures to acknowledge its history beyond renaming.

“If we choose to honor these people, how do we make sure their entire legacy [is] known?” Dunn said.  

A decision on whether or not the building names will change may be months away. 

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