Examining the past: UMN efforts to rename buildings delayed again

The University has taken longer than other schools in handling its racist history.

Austen Macalus

The University of Minnesota’s efforts to reevaluate four buildings on campus named after controversial figures have become among the longest in the country. 

The University’s work to examine its racist history is part of a nationwide reckoning about the legacy of discrimination in higher education. But after another delay to a yearlong deliberative process, the University has yet to come to a conclusion, or even a recommendation, about renaming buildings. 

The University’s renaming process is the longest out of ten large universities that have undertaken similar efforts in recent years, such as renaming buildings and removing monuments. 

Yale University took six months to remove John C. Calhoun’s name in 2017. The University of Pittsburgh renamed its public health building in six months. Maryland University changed its football stadium, which was named after a former president who supported segregation, in less than three months. 

So far, it’s taken the University two different committees and more than 16 months to determine the fate of four buildings: Coffman Union, Coffey Hall, Nicholson Hall and Middlebrook Hall. 

This month, the committee responsible for recommending name changes to Coffman and three other buildings pushed back their deadline, marking the third missed deadline in four months. 

After blowing past their latest deadline in mid-January, the Task Force on Building Names and Institutional History “asked for more time in order to fully complete their work and deliver a comprehensive final report,” said a University spokesperson in an emailed statement to the Minnesota Daily. John Coleman, co-chair of the task force, was not available for an interview. 

President Eric Kaler, who convened the committee in early October, expects a final report before presenting at the Board of Regents’ February meeting. A final decision on renaming Coffman is expected before Kaler steps down on June 30, though the timeline is unclear.

“I think that they’re a little bit afraid to make a decision because there are so many factors playing into what the consequences could be,” said University senior Chloe Williams, who started a petition to rename Coffman last year. The petition has received nearly five thousand signatures.

Williams said she thinks changing the name could cause backlash from donors, legislators and community members, who may rescind their support for the University. 

Kaler has acknowledged the process’ slow pace, which has caused some University members to raise concerns about the administration’s lengthy timeline. 

“As far as I know, we’ve never renamed a building in the 162 years of history. So, I am being cautious,” Kaler said in a September Board of Regents meeting. “That may be slow, but we will get there.”  

Addressing history, without erasing it

In 2003, Brown University began investigating its past, resulting in a more than 100-page report on the school’s ties to slavery and acknowledgement of its full history.

Since Brown, schools have taken a variety of approaches to address the past — from the University of Oregon stripping an ex-KKK leader’s name from its dorm to the University of Texas-Austin taking down Confederate statues after the Charleston church shooting.

As colleges across the country confront complicated histories and controversial figures — often catalyzed by student protests — school administrators are faced with questions about how to best redress past wrongdoings, without erasing history.

Choosing to remove building names or take down monuments can be a complicated process  involving several rounds of committee meetings and months of deliberation. 

Northwestern University history professor Leslie Harris said these efforts are linked to the post-WWII expansion of higher education to include more women, people of color and minority groups. 

“When you bring new people into old institutions, they look around and say, ‘Well, why is this here?’” Harris said.

For Harris, the decision to remove a name depends on each institution and their unique relationships with historical figures. 

“How we decide not so much to honor them but to recognize their role in history, good and bad, I think that’s really the question. How do we make available all parts of that history?” she said. 

Harris said that schools may choose to address their history in others ways, such as increasing diversity outreach efforts, installing plaques that give a more complete history about monuments or leading new educational projects.

The University of Minnesota’s renaming process followed the 2017 “A Campus Divided” exhibit, which highlighted Lotus Coffman’s and other administrators’ work for segregated student housing and surveillance of black and Jewish students.

In response, the University appointed back-to-back task forces, the first of which laid out five broad “guiding principles” for naming buildings — change, diversity, preservation, exceptionality and deliberation — saying that removing names should only happen in outstanding circumstances.

Yale used a similar process to change a residential college named after former U.S. Vice President John C. Calhoun, who was a vocal supporter of slavery. It looked to determine “whether the namesake principal legacy fundamentally conflicts with the university’s mission.” 

Yale history professor John Lewis Gaddis, who helped recommend removing Calhoun’s name, said the guidelines were effective to determine when to go forward with a name change.

“Our main challenge in renaming was knowing where to stop. Yale’s campus is full of buildings named for people — almost all men — who, by today’s standards, would be politically incorrect:  that’s true of Elihu Yale himself, a slave owner for whom the university was named,” Gaddis said in an email to the Minnesota Daily.

University of Minnesota graduate student Emma Dunn worked on the Minnesota Student Association’s resolution to rename Coffman last year. 

Dunn said there are a wide variety of views on Coffman’s legacy and whether the University should remove his name. Although she supports a name change, Dunn said the University could take other measures to acknowledge its history beyond renaming.

“If we choose to honor these people, how do we make sure their entire legacy [is] known?” Dunn said.