Letter to the Editor: Renaming campus buildings

The University needs more democracy and less royalty.

by Letter to the Editor

American professors, even famous ones, pick up their office phone themselves. That was one fascinating lesson I learned when I called the U.S. as a graduate student in Germany, long before the advent of email. Apparently, they didn’t use secretaries to fend off students like their colleagues in the Old World. Even more surprising, the Americans talked to you like a fellow human being, no matter how low you ranked on the academic food chain. 

Not just for me but for many of my European friends, encounters like this, over the phone or face-to-face, had a big impact on how we imagined American universities – as true academic republics, classless and self-governed, free of attitude and arrogance. 

In reality, of course, campus grass wasn’t that much greener on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, specifically not on the Twin Cities campus where I interviewed for a job more than 10 years ago. It was a faculty position with part-time responsibilities as an associate dean. One of the first questions I was asked by a search committee member was, “Whose side will you be on, faculty or administration?” Back then, I had no idea what that meant. Where I came from, faculty and administration were one and the same. Positions for deans, rectors, vice rectors or presidents were assignments that professors would take over for a limited time. The professors were voted in by fellow faculty or the broader university community, without giving up research and teaching — and, most importantly, without getting paid a whole lot extra.

I now know that there is a strange dichotomy on many American campuses. There is the real university with professors, students, lectures and laboratories where the actual teaching and research happens. And then there is the parallel universe of academic administration that is run by an army of professional administrators whose offices have Orwellian-sounding names, like “institutional improvement,” “student life” and “student success.” The University of Minnesota is no different and has managed to take those bureaucratic euphemisms a notch higher. I really wonder who came up with the idea to publish the University’s monthly newsletter under the ridiculously self-celebratory title “M Pride.” Probably somebody with a corporate background in leadership and personal branding. This brings me to the Board of Regents, another peculiarity in governance at the University. 

The term “regent” can be translated from Latin in various ways. King-maker or elector would probably come closest since their main task is to select the president and spare the University community the trouble of a democratic vote. All of this has a very medieval or even feudal ring and reminds me more of the Holy Roman Empire than a modern university. Yes, I am aware that there is a morbid fascination in the U.S. with Old World nobility and aristocrats, but even American universities were founded to worship reason, not royalty — and certainly not regents. 

Lately, it seems that, for some regents, bringing entrepreneurial glitz and glamour to academic governance doesn’t cut it anymore. They want to take over as scholars too, preferably in history, and particularly in the history of racism and segregation at the University. They have recently threatened a “regal veto” to research outcomes and recommendations made by a faculty and student task force to remove names of disgraced bureaucrats from University buildings. This is none of the regents’ business. Naming buildings should be another matter for the University community to democratically vote on, just like the presidency should be.

Henning Schroeder is a professor in the College of Pharmacy and former vice provost and dean of graduate education at the University of Minnesota.