Reckoning with history: How the University’s efforts to rename buildings failed

Several distinct factors challenged the University’s renaming process.

Regent Abdul Omari listens in on the Board of Regents' special session on Friday, April 26. The board voted against the renaming of four buildings on campus after more than a year of community discussion on the issue.

Jack Rodgers

Regent Abdul Omari listens in on the Board of Regents’ special session on Friday, April 26. The board voted against the renaming of four buildings on campus after more than a year of community discussion on the issue.

The University of Minnesota has not renamed a building on campus since its founding in 1851, a record kept after the Board of Regents meeting last month. 

In spite of more than a year of student advocacy, a faculty task force report and President Eric Kaler’s recommendations, the unprecedented efforts to rename buildings failed. That begs the question: why did the University’s efforts fall short?

The University followed other schools’ lead with its renaming process. For one, the renaming push started with students, as was the case at many other schools.

The University set out with a two-tiered approach, with one committee laying out guiding principles for renaming and another making recommendations for renaming, mirroring Yale University’s approach to renaming a residential college named after former U.S. Vice President John C. Calhoun.

However, the University’s attempt to rename four buildings at one fell swoop was unique in higher education. The University of Michigan renamed two buildings in 2018, but they were considered separately from one another. 

Though many other schools have successfully renamed buildings in recent years, the University faced a unique set of challenges, from taking on multiple namesakes to a contentious dispute about the underlying historical record — factors that ultimately doomed the final decision. 

A recent history  

Compared to other institutions, the University of Minnesota sought to redress a relatively recent and proximate history: discrimination by University administrators in the 1930s and ‘40s. 

Stanford University had an easier time in 2018 when the school went forward with renaming several features named after Roman Catholic missionary Father Junipero Serra. That is in part because Serra was not closely connected to Stanford; he was around more than a hundred years before Stanford was founded. 

“There was not strong opposition and there was very strong support,” said Paul Brest, who chaired two committees that handled Stanford’s process. 

That is much different than former president Lotus Coffman and other former administrators who had direct roles at the University only a few generations ago. Many of the building namesakes have direct descendants living today, and renaming critics on the Board of Regents said they weren’t given a chance to defend their family members.

William Middlebrook was a part of Coffman’s administration, but his grandson Chris Middlebrook said Middlebrook was unfairly roped into the debate. “He’s like an extra periphery character that shouldn’t have been a part of this in the first place,” Chris Middlebrook said. 

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, people worried about alienating descendants when debating renaming rooms in its student union named after members of the Ku Klux Klan. The student union board gave descendants the opportunity to speak for their family members.

“They were people with a lot of social and cultural capital, they were sort of ‘big men on campus,’ but they were not administrators. They were not in charge of university policy,” said Stephen Kantrowitz, who co-chaired a committee that examined the history of the KKK at Madison. 

The committee’s report concluded the KKK was a symptom, not a cause, of the exclusionary culture at Madison. It recommended no name changes. However, students successfully pushed renaming through last year.

“I think, at the end of the day, one of the families acknowledged the students had good reason to feel the way they did,” he said. “It’s understandably hard for people to get past membership in the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s.”

Similarly, Georgetown University renamed buildings in 2015 after student-led campaigns drove the school to investigate ties to slavery.

“We had the advantage of history being very well-documented and the wrongs being very explicitly wrong,” said David Collins, who chaired a group charged with examining the school’s relationship with slavery. He said they didn’t even have to do any research before recommending renaming two buildings on campus named for administrators involved in the 1838 sale of 272 people.

“We heard we were ‘erasing history,’ and we heard we were ‘applying 21st-century morality to the 19th century,’” he said. “But even at the time, slavery was controversial.”

Proponents of renaming at the University contended that segregation was controversial in the ’30s and ’40s too. However, a dispute over the historical record — which led to controversial allegations of academic misconduct — ultimately broke the momentum of the renaming push.

A Campus Divided

The University’s approach to renaming also departed from other schools in another significant way: participants in the discussion could not agree on several pieces of the University’s history. 

Once renaming efforts reached the Board of Regents, they were plagued by an ongoing dispute about the historical record. Several regents sharply criticized the task force’s 125-page report that outlined the actions of former administrators, diverting discussion about whether to rename buildings into quarrels over faculty’s work.  

Renaming buildings is almost always controversial, said Robert Cohen, a professor of higher education history at New York University. “What the regents here did is quite unusual,” he said. “Most opponents of renaming don’t deny the facts.”

Regent Darrin Rosha said the report mischaracterized former administrators who were acting against powerful regents at the time. He said there isn’t evidence of racism and anti-Semitism by Coffman and former Dean of Student Affairs Edward Nicholson, citing misleading quotes in the report. 

Regent Michael Hsu accused the task force of academic dishonesty, claiming members had intentionally omitted evidence. 

At the University of Maryland, renaming the school’s football stadium also faced pushback. 

But Bonnie Thornton Dill, who chaired the school’s committee that provided pros and cons for renaming, said most people didn’t dispute historical facts, even if they disagreed about whether to rename. 

Former Maryland President Harry “Curley” Byrd, for whom the stadium is named, served as president during the 1930s-50s and was a well-known segregationist. But he was also a revered figure to many in Maryland, Dill said.  

“It was controversial because I think people who had been in the state for a long time … understood [Byrd] had built up the university and felt that the university owed a great debt to him,” Dill said. The school eventually went forward with renaming the stadium in 2015.

At Yale, Calhoun was widely known as a proponent of slavery and white supremacy. His prolific namesake and well-documented views have ignited naming disputes nationwide — “Lake Calhoun,” recently changed from “Bde Maka Ska,” being the latest and most local example.

“John C. Calhoun’s legacy as a white supremacist and a national leader who passionately promoted slavery as a ‘positive good’ fundamentally conflicts with Yale’s mission and values,” Yale President Peter Salovey said when announcing the decision to rename Calhoun College in 2017.  

What’s next?

Other schools have taken different approaches to reckoning with their racist histories, whether or not they renamed a building.

Georgetown decided to give priority admission to descendants of slaves that the school owned. Last month, Georgetown students approved paying reparations to descendants of slaves sold in 1838, which was funded by a $27.20 charge to students.

At Princeton University, the board of trustees decided in 2016 not to remove the name of former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson from several buildings on campus, despite a push by black students. 

Instead, a campus committee took other steps to address “larger concerns about the University’s commitment to diversity and inclusivity.” Efforts included pledging to increase minority students in doctoral programs and supporting other educational initiatives about Princeton’s history. 

While voting against renaming, the Board of Regents passed a resolution directing incoming President Joan Gabel to develop “ongoing commemorations, educational activities, and/or permanent educational displays.” The regents also direct the administration to develop a more clear process for handling renamings in the future. 

In addition, Kaler told the Minnesota Daily that he hopes to establish a permanent advisory committee on the University’s history before he leaves this July. The group would develop ways to reckon with the University’s past going forward, he said. 

Some regents still want to talk to the task force about their work. Regent Rosha said he plans on submitting a list of questions in writing, something that faculty asked for at the regents special meeting last month. 

Regents Professor of American Studies Elaine Tyler May, chair of the History Department, said the renaming debate was an important first step in addressing the University’s history. But she said there is more to be done and the committee is key.

She said whether the regents and Kaler honor their commitments to continuing discussion about the University’s history “remains to be seen in what happens going forward.”