Letter: Is the task force report on renaming fair to Coffman?

The task force’s section on Coffman doesn’t come close to meeting the minimal standards to serve as a basis for the regents’ decision.

Letter to the Editor

As most people are aware, the Task Force on Building Names and Institutional History recently recommended to the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents that four university buildings be stripped of their names, because the four men commemorated by the buildings didn’t live up to the standards the University community has a right to expect. Several regents caused a stir when they questioned the quality of the report on the basis of which they have been asked to arrive at their decision. 

This has led to a bad-tempered standoff and bruised egos. The regents have been accused of encroaching on prerogatives of faculty. Scholarship is their fiefdom. How dare the regents second-guess the scholarship of faculty? But this criticism overlooks the point that the University’s constitution entrusts decisions about naming buildings to the regents, so they are left with no choice but to make judgments about the quality of the report.

That is why I think it is important to shift the spotlight back to the task force report and its strengths and weaknesses. In this spirit, I offer the following contribution. I reviewed the task force’s discussion of Lotus Coffman who served as president of the University from 1920 to 1938. I won’t keep you in suspense. Based on my review, I concluded that the report’s scholarship – at least in the section on Coffman – doesn’t come close to meeting the minimal standards to serve as a basis for the regents’ decision. I come not to praise Coffman. Nor do I take a position on renaming Coffman Union. I simply think that Coffman should stay named, as well as not shamed without convincing evidence of wrongful behavior.

To illustrate why I reached this conclusion, I consider the task force’s treatment of Coffman’s 1911 Columbia University dissertation, “The Social Composition of the Teaching Population.” Coffman’s work is based on a survey of teachers in 17 states. Frankly, it is pretty dull fare. But the task force alleges that this study, (as well as Coffman’s other writings and actions), was racially motivated and/or informed by his alleged adherence to the ideology of what it calls “scientific racism.” In addition, the task force claims, (also non-persuasively in my view), that Coffman “facilitated” eugenic scholarship on campus because of these beliefs. The task force admits that Coffman worked for “wider access to high-quality education.” Nevertheless, it finds that many of the study’s recommendations mask a hidden agenda. It charges that the recommendations were “couched in aims to increase the number of male teachers of higher social class (and native-born white parentage) as the most intrinsically qualified.”

In this brief comment, I explain why I think that every one of these claims is wild and unsubstantiated or seriously misleading. In summary: I find that Coffman didn’t call for an increase in the number or proportion of male teachers. Nor did he have anything to say about advancing white teachers. It is misleading to say that he called for more teachers of native-born parentage. And, his reference to “teachers of higher social class” has nothing to do with what the report calls “scientific racism” or even class prejudice or other bias. Least of all, did Coffman say that any of these groups were “the most intrinsically qualified?”

To elaborate on these points: Coffman recommended in his dissertation that “leaders in education must engage continuously in a campaign for the higher qualifications of teachers, for an increased compensation, for greater security and permanence of position, and for a more widespread recognition of the respectability and service of the calling.” He also appealed for the greater professionalization of teachers. But nowhere in the book does he advocate increasing the proportion of male teachers. Indeed, as the task force itself notes, Coffman expressly stated that the “feminization” of teaching could not be reversed.

Nor does the book at any point propose that the number of white teachers be increased. Nothing in the book suggests that Coffman’s recommendations are intended to favor whites over other races. 

It is true that Coffman favored teachers of native-born parentage. But that was entirely because he considered fluency in English to be an essential qualification for teaching. Rightly or wrongly he was preoccupied with what he called “the problem of training teachers who have not become thoroughly Americanized.” (By the way, the task force sneers at the idea of Americanization, which it puts in scare quotes). 

The task force charges that “[w]hen distinguishing, in his terms, Anglo-Saxon from Catholic national origins in survey groups, [Coffman] cited a prominent eugenicist to indicate the dangers of large families from ‘inferior stocks.'” But I can’t find any reference to Catholics in his book. And it is simply false that Coffman uses the term “Anglo-Saxon” to contrast people of English origin with “inferior stocks.” He uses the term on just one occasion, and for a completely different purpose: In order to estimate the percentage of teachers who are fluent in English. Coffman adds together the number of native-born American teachers whose parental language is English and the count of foreign-born teachers with “clearly Anglo-Saxon” surnames. A careful reading would have shown that Coffman’s use of the term “Anglo-Saxon” is innocent of any racial connotations. 

The report also tries to tie Coffman’s views to those of a “prominent eugenicist.” The eugenicist in question is Karl Pearson, a founding father of mathematical statistics, the namesake of the Pearson correlation coefficient and an outspoken social Darwinist. Pearson feared the deterioration of the [English] national character.

The task force notes that Coffman analogizes the situation in the United States to that in England. Immigrants to the U.S. tended to have larger families than native-born Americans. But that is where the resemblance ends. Coffman’s purpose in raising the matter of the immigrants’ larger families was to make an entirely different point from Pearson’s. Consider the following passage on p. 71 of his book: “It appears that there is a constant submergence of the pristine population and of the thoroughly naturalized population by waves of foreign immigration, who experience but a superficial assimilation before another European army forces them with slow tread across the continent.” 

Now, to the modern ear, this may have the ring of “scientific racism,” which the task force implies. But it is nothing of the sort. After all, Coffman contrasts the “pristine population” (presumably descendants of English settlers) and “the thoroughly naturalized population” with recent immigrants. Plainly, the pristine population is not a racial or biological category. It consists of both English and assimilated immigrants. It is worth repeating that Coffman is interested in trends in the supply and demand for qualified teachers, as well as and the implications for educational policy. Among other things, he was afraid that demand — represented by the large number of children of non-English speaking immigrants — was outstripping the supply of qualified teachers, who would be necessarily drawn from outnumbered “native” or “naturalized” populations. 

This error leads the task force to make the wholly gratuitous and unfair insinuation that Coffman harbored prejudice against “the large number of Irish Catholic women who had entered the teaching profession by the turn of the twentieth century.” 

As for social class, it is true Coffman believed that teachers of a higher economic position were better teachers. And, more effective, as he put it: “the transmission of our best culture.” In another statement that is easy to misinterpret, Coffman decries the fact that “the intellectual possessions of the race are by rather unconscious selection left to a class of people who by social and economic station, as well as by training, are not eminently fitted for their transmission.” 

Nevertheless, Coffman did not propose that public schools hire on the basis of social class. His solution was to improve the training of teachers. “Progress in teaching can be secured ultimately only through two avenues: getting better teachers and making the kind we are now getting better. … The latter is safer and surer.” Coffman’s view about class and teaching may strike modern readers as quaint or archaic. But they must be understood in the context of his time. He noted that only well-off families could afford additional years of education. Coffman opposed a reform that would have limited teaching to graduates from both high school and normal school. That was out of the question, he said, so long as “we continue to get teachers from large families that earn little.” In all of this, one must not lose sight of the fact that Coffman’s priority was to provide the most effective teachers for the children of (predominantly) the masses.

Lastly, I did not find a shred of evidence to back the task force’s theory that Coffman viewed some groups as “intrinsically” more qualified to become teachers with its overtones of racism. 

How could the task force get the story so wrong? Possibly the authors may have let its preconceptions get in the way of its understanding. It seem oblivious to the ways in which words have acquired different meanings or connotations since Coffman wrote the book. Coffman refers to “the race,” “native stock,” “mixed parentage,” “pristine population,” ”purity,” “English-speaking blood,” and “native white stock.” In our age, drenched as it is in accusations of racism, such terms are taboo, shocking or creepy. If a reader is not sensitive to the historical context in which the book was written, it is easy to miss the fact that Coffman was using these terms in a linguistic, cultural or sociological sense, not a biological one. This matters because the report judges Coffman almost exclusively through the lens of today’s identity politics. The task force warns that making judgments about the words and deeds of past generations calls for empathy and humility, but it does not seem to have heeded its own excellent advice. 

Ian Maitland is a professor in the Carlson School of Management.