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University members question timeline of ongoing Coffman Union renaming

Renaming Coffman Union is one of University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler’s priorities during his final year.
The front of Coffman Union on Sept. 19, 2017.
Image by Jack Rodgers

The front of Coffman Union on Sept. 19, 2017.

University of Minnesota administrators and students have started to question the slow timeline of the initiative to rename Coffman Union.

Conversation about renaming the building began last fall, when the  “A Campus Divided” exhibit showed historical racist and anti-semitic practices by some University personnel, including the building’s namesake, former University President Lotus Coffman. A University committee charged in 2017 created a set of recommendations on how to move forward. After University President Eric Kaler evaluated the recommendations, he created a task force to garner additional recommendations. 

Without a planned ending or final decision, some are wondering why progress on renaming Coffman has been stagnant. 

Earlier this month, Kaler created a task force to look over President’s and Provost’s Advisory Committee on University History’s recommendations regarding the naming of specific University buildings, including Coffman. The task force will announce its own set of recommendations by Nov. 15.

Kaler will send the recommendations to the Board of Regents in November, who will decide how to continue the renaming process, said Board Chair David McMillan. A final decision on renaming Coffman can be expected between March and May, McMillan said.

On Nov. 16, the Minnesota Student Association, in conjunction with Kaler and the renaming task force, will hold a listening session for vested students to voice opinions about the possibility of renaming Coffman.

Renaming buildings and institutional history are among Kaler’s “top priorities” before he steps down as University president on July 1, according to a September all-campus email from Kaler. The decision to rename Coffman will be completed by June 30, almost two years after the initiative’s work began.

McMillian said this process may seem long because Kaler did not charge the task force until October — several months after the first committee made its recommendation. Kaler put the process on hold over summer, which McMillan said was the right decision because there are fewer people on campus during that time. 

Regent Abdul Omari voiced concerns about the lengthy process at the Regents meeting in September.

“I’m a bit disappointed by the naming committee decision — going from committee to committee,” Omari said. “I was hoping that [Kaler] would’ve made a bold statement and stance on this topic by now.”

At an MSA forum earlier this month, Kaler said the search for the next University president may affect the timeliness of the process to rename Coffman.

“As we bring recommendations to the regents, timing is going to be interesting,” Kaler said at the meeting. “There’s going to be a lot of interest and a lot of engagement by the regents [in the presidential search], so I’m not sure when they will feel ready, either intellectually or otherwise emotionally prepared to take on [the renaming process].”

Although the administration has not formally renamed the building, some students have already moved away from calling it “Coffman.”

In an effort to gain student involvement in the renaming process, MSA sent an email to all undergraduate students earlier this month, encouraging them to sign a pledge to use the terms “Memorial Union,” “The Union,” or “Student Union,” instead of “Coffman Memorial Union.”

“We all … have power to use our words on campus as well as the rhetoric we use around our student union to create long-lasting cultural change,” said MSA President Simran Mishra. “We as individuals can take a little bit of extra effort … to create this cultural change.” 

Approximately six student groups wrote, “Memorial Union” or “The Union,” as their group’s location on their Washington Avenue bridge panel. 

By using this phrasing before the administration has officially made a decision on the issue, students are setting norms and encouraging others to not use the term “Coffman,” said Vibha Mavanji, the safer space coordinator for the Feminist Student Activist Collective. The group painted “Memorial Union” on its panel.

In the 1930s, University President Coffman supported segregation on campus, including in student housing. With many marginalized student groups housed in Coffman, some feel the name is inappropriate.

MSA will remain active throughout this renaming process, Mishra said. It hopes to gather student input and create spaces for open dialogue about this issue, she added. 

“Our entire goal is to see how we can bring … more student voices and more student concerns into this decision and this process,” Mishra said. 

Correction: A previous version of this story said the Nov. 16 meeting is open to University community members. 

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