Renaming efforts turn into a contentious debate over the historical record

Several regents are criticizing a task force’s recommendations to rename buildings, but supporters say the historical research is sound.

Coffman Union as seen on Saturday, March 30.

Elle Moulin

Coffman Union as seen on Saturday, March 30.

Austen Macalus

After more than a year of investigating racist and anti-Semitic actions in the University of Minnesota’s past, a push to rename buildings on campus has come to an impasse amidst pushback from members on the Board of Regents. 

Several regents have repeatedly attacked a task force’s recommendations to strip the names of Coffman Union, Nicholson Hall, Middlebrook Hall and Coffey Hall — setting off a public feud about the veracity and accuracy of a 125-page report examining former administrators actions during the 1930s and ‘40s. 

At the center of that dispute: How to understand the University’s complicated history and who to blame for it. Some regents question if former administrators acted on their own volition, though the board appears split on issue. Proponents of renaming say presidents Lotus Coffman and Walter Coffey, Edward Nicholson and William Middlebrook should be held accountable for their roles in upholding segregation and surveilling minority students on campus. 

Riv-Ellen Prell, a professor emerita of American studies and the curator of the A Campus Divided exhibit, forcefully defended the task force’s work, calling the report “one of the most thoughtful, reflective, intelligent discussion[s] of the issues [regarding] historical memory.” 

“This research was thorough. It was complex. And it tells the story, not based on a single source or a single letter, but a year of research across as many different sources as we could find,” said Prell, who advised the task force. 

However, several regents alleged the report failed to provide a balanced, fair and accurate account of the renaming history at a contentious board meeting last month.  

The critical reaction prompted a multitude of campus figures — including President Eric Kaler, deans on the Twin Cities campus, members of the faculty senate and student leaders — to denounce what they say was a disrespectful discussion. In a letter to task force co-chairs, Board Chair David McMillan apologized for a “disappointing” and “one-sided” conversation.

Regent Michael Hsu, one of the most vocal critics of the report, has since called for an investigation into the task force report. He said the group committed “academic dishonesty,” intentionally omitting historical evidence that weighs favorably for figures in question. 

“Our faculty obviously have tried to bypass the truth,” Hsu said in an interview with the Minnesota Daily. “At the end of the day, I think their report is completely not credible and their motives are in question.” 

Hsu said there were a “handful” of documents left out of or partially excluded from the report. He said those documents and others make it “pretty clear” administrators had their hands tied and acted under the direction of regents at the time.

Hsu pointed to minutes of a board meeting in 1935, which were uncovered by Regent Richard Beeson after the last meeting. That document says regents were of “unanimous opinion that the housing of Negro students in Pioneer Hall would not be conducive to their best interests nor to the interests of the other students now residing there.” 

Though the minutes were not included in the report, the task force references “a ‘general policy with regard to the races which has been followed at this institution since its beginning’ that the Board of Regents unanimously supported,” in a 1935 letter from Coffman to the All-University Council Committee on Negro Discrimination. 

“If you’re trying to understand somebody’s motivations, you have to understand what they are being told to do by their bosses, by people who have control over them,” Hsu said. “The board doesn’t allow things to go on for 12 years if they really want to solve the problem.”

Regent Darrin Rosha echoed those concerns, saying the task force mischaracterized historical material and over-exaggerated former administrators actions.

“The evidence that was presented [in the report] when considered more closely and including the additional material that I’ve reviewed and others have presented, it does not appear that the individuals were accurately depicted,” he said. 

Some of the evidence actually “cuts the other way,” Rosha said, revealing that administrators “were seeking to bend the arc of history in the right direction against a community and a board that were not supportive of those changes at the time.” 

Not every regent on the board shares the same concerns about the task force report. 

Regent Chair McMillan rebuked Hsu’s allegations of academic dishonesty, saying he did not see it was helpful “in any possible way to frame” the issue at “this critical juncture” in an email obtained by the Minnesota Daily.

Regent Abdul Omari also rebuked other regents for alleging that evidence was intentionally left out at the board meeting, saying if regents don’t trust faculty, then “we have a much bigger problem.” Omari declined to comment for this story.

Regent Linda Cohen, though undecided about renaming, said in an interview with the Minnesota Daily that she didn’t find fault in the task force’s work. “I think they did a terrific job. I admire the work of the faculty. I think their work is great. And I appreciate so much all the very very hard work they did on it,” she said. 

Many of the regents’ allegations against the task force didn’t sit right with Prell, who’s spent years researching this history. She staunchly pushed back on Rosha’s and Hsu’s claims about the report’s accuracy.  

“The regents are entitled to opinions. The regents have the right to vote,” Prell said. “The regents do not have the right to declare something historically inaccurate based on limited and very faulty information.”

Prell said the regents “misrepresented” historical research by singling out individual documents and incorrectly drawing broad conclusions, rather than looking at the evidence on the whole. “That’s not how historical research works. You have to look at all the documents. You have to look at the context,” she said. 

Prell said regents are taking a “strategy of shifting blame” by switching focus to the former University’s governing board. 

“Were the regents at fault? Yes. Were the administrators at the University of Minnesota at fault? Yes. But what we’re hearing from these regents are because everyone was at fault … no one was at fault. No one can be held responsible. What we have is a system of racism without racists,” she said.

Prell highlighted that President Guy Stanton Ford, who took over after Coffman, ended segregation on campus despite working in the same environment. “We had three presidents in the 1930s. All white. All Midwestern. All male. All protestant. And Guy Stanton Ford did not take the position they did,” she said. 

For Prell, the issue goes beyond the four building names. It’s about rightfully recognizing the University’s history. 

“If we set aside renaming. What is our responsibility?” she said. “Our responsibility is to tell this history.”