Kaler calls for renaming Coffman, other buildings

University President Eric Kaler recommended renaming four buildings on campus, but students’ views on the issue are varied.

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

Jasmin Kemp

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

by Austen Macalus

Coffman Union sees thousands of students pass through it every day. The student union is home to an assortment of student organizations — including the University’s nine student cultural centers. Soon, it could have a new name.

University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler is supporting plans to rename Coffman and three other buildings named after former administrators who upheld racist and anti-Semitic practices on campus. However, students’ views on renaming the buildings are varied, ranging from mild indifference to staunch support or opposition. 

Kaler announced his recommendation to strip the names of Coffman Union, Nicholson Hall, Middlebrook Hall and Coffey Hall in a statement last week — building off recommendations in a recently released 125-page report, which supported removing building names.

“I entered this process with an open mind, and at this stage I believe that changing the names is the right path for the University of Minnesota,” Kaler said in a statement to the University on Friday. 

During interviews with students in Coffman, many said they have minimal knowledge about the University’s history and the renaming process, while others expressed firm stances on the issue. 

Many students reflected views expressed in comments submitted to the Task Force on Building Names and Institutional History. Out of the approximately 275 comments, around 43 percent supported renaming the buildings and about 37 percent said renaming is unnecessary.

But responses varied significantly among students, faculty, staff and alumni. Among undergraduate students, 48 percent were opposed to renaming the buildings, while 38 percent who expressed support. That diverged from the overwhelming 81 percent majority of faculty who expressed support for renaming.

Multiple students, some of whom asked not to be identified, said they don’t see the need to rename buildings and the University should recognize its history without erasing it. 

Alayna Meskill, a junior studying human physiology, said a new name for Coffman will take time to catch on among students. 

“Even if it did change, it’s still going to be called Coffman for a lot of students,” she said. “I would still consider this Coffman because I’ve always called it that.” 

However, other students were more supportive of a possible change. 

University junior Lilly McLaughlin said, “I think it’s good. The people they’re named after suck.” 

Melissa Nguyen, a freshman studying finance and marketing, said it’s important to rename Coffman because it serves as the student union. 

“It’s a very main area of campus where all students are supposed to feel welcome and it’s named after someone who’s racist,” she said. “I think they should [rename buildings] if it offends people on our campus.”

Baobai Yang-Her, a sophomore studying early childhood education, agreed. She said removing the names of racist University leaders will help students feel welcome.

“I feel like out of all the buildings, Coffman is one of the most culturally diverse,” she said. “I would like to be on a campus where everyone is welcome.”

Only 26 percent of alumni who submitted comments to the Task Force supported renaming buildings, compared to 41 percent who expressed opposition.

Bradley Pierson, who graduated from the University in 2016, said he thinks “it’s kind of silly” that the buildings have become a controversy.

“I remember the names being more than acceptable and no big [fuss] raised when I was a student just a couple of years ago,” he said in a Facebook message. “I think out of all of the issues the University has to deal with and focus on, this should be the least of their concerns.” 

Stephanie Mages, a University alumnus who graduated in 2000, had a different stance. 

“Buildings should be named to honor people the community respects. If Coffman does not live up to that standard, then the name should changed,” she wrote in a Facebook message. 

Kaler’s proposal follows a lengthy deliberation process about addressing the University’s past and a push by student leaders to rename Coffman. Nearly 5,000 people have signed a petition to rename Coffman that was started by students last year. 

Kaler has put forth temporary names for the four buildings in question: “Student Union” for Coffman Union; “Agricultural Administration Building” for Coffey Hall; “216 Pillsbury Drive” for Nicholson Hall; and “West Bank Residence Hall” for Middlebrook Hall. 

The recommendations still must be approved by the University’s Board of Regents. Kaler will present his proposal to the board this week, with a final decision on naming expected before President-Designate Joan Gabel takes over in July. 

Though some students are praising the University’s efforts, others are less interested in the controversy. 

Vincent Kancans, a graduate student studying German, said he didn’t have a strong opinion on the issue. 

“I feel like I don’t know enough of a history behind the names,” he said. “It wouldn’t bother me if they changed or didn’t change.”