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Regents question renaming University of Minnesota buildings

Walter C. Coffey (1876–1956) was president of the University of Minnesota from 1941–1945. Courtesy of the University of Minnesota Archives1 / 4
Lotus D. Coffman (1875–1938) served as the fifth president of the University from 1920 until his death in 1938. The University of Minnesota is considering name changes for several campus buildings named for men who promoted racist or anti-Semitic policies. Courtesy of the University of Minnesota Archives2 / 4
William T. Middlebrook (1892–1974) was Comptroller and Vice President of the University of Minnesota from 1925 to 1959. Courtesy of the University of Minnesota Archives3 / 4
Edward E. Nicholson (1873-1949) was the first Dean of Student Affairs at the University of Minnesota, from 1917–1941. Courtesy of the University of Minnesota Archives4 / 4

ST. PAUL — Several members of the University of Minnesota Board of Regents on Friday, March 8, challenged the academic underpinnings of a recommendation to rename four buildings on the Twin Cities campus.

Regents say they have found flaws in a 125-page report that lays out both the contributions of four former administrators and the men’s acts of discrimination against African-American and Jewish students.

The men at issue are Lotus Coffman, 1920-38 president; Walter Coffey, 1941-45 president; Edward Nicholson, 1917-41 dean of student affairs; and William Middlebrook, comptroller and business vice president between 1929 and 1959.

President Eric Kaler has recommended all four men’s names be scrubbed from University of Minnesota buildings.

“Do these names continue to convey the ideals we hold for ourselves?” he asked regents Friday.

Regents won’t take action until at least May. But on Friday, several criticized the report from a presidential task force led by law and history professor Susanna Blumenthal and liberal arts dean John Coleman.

Saying the report “did not come off as fair as I expected,” Regent Michael Hsu asked that a different group of academics be tasked with supplementing the information.

Hsu suggested the report pinned too much blame on the namesake administrators and too little on those eras’ Board of Regents.

Regent Darrin Rosha said the report lacked research citations for critical allegations, including charges that Nicholson was anti-Semitic. He said that a student group’s endorsement of new names for the buildings was based on “faulty claims.”

“This is not just a function of renaming. This is attacking an individual’s legacy, the individual’s name, his or her family,” he said.

‘Really troubled’

Regent Thomas Anderson said he too was “really, really troubled” by what he found in the source materials for the report. And he said he’s uncomfortable judging the actions of men who lived in such a different time.

“I wish we could have a university, and an America for that matter, that celebrated one’s achievements rather than trying to limit one’s accomplishments by their faults,” he said.

Regent Richard Beeson said he wants to learn more about the historical context of the discrimination, suggesting the campus was no worse than the surrounding community.

Defending Coffman in particular, Beeson said that while the longtime president refused to integrate student housing, he did open the General College, which welcomed many students of color to campus before it was closed in 2006.

Chairman David McMillan said he expects regents will be presented with more information before making decisions on the building names at a future meeting. They will vote on each name individually.

‘Discrimination is discrimination’

Blumenthal said the task force presented a comprehensive accounting of the men’s contributions and faults.

She said the matter of renaming buildings is not about judging the men against today’s standard but making a statement about the values the University of Minnesota holds today.

“We are now thinking about how today we want to reflect our own values,” she said.

Abdul Omari invited his fellow regent, Rosha, to write a supplemental report before the board votes on the building names. He said if regents are correct that academics on the task force omitted exculpatory evidence, “then we have a much bigger problem.”

However, Omari said he found “overt racism and anti-Semitism” in the documents he’s read.

“I don’t see a context or a time where that’s OK,” he said. “Discrimination is discrimination.”