After an exhibit prompted the University of Minnesota’s student body president to call for the renaming of Coffman Union, students are beginning to take action.
The Minnesota Student Association’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee is drafting a resolution, gathering signatures for a petition and planning to present the material at a forum in early March with a goal of renaming the central campus building.
This week, state Rep. Ilhan Omar, DFL-Minneapolis, tweeted out a petition in support of the name change started by Chloe Williams, MSA’s diversity and inclusion committee chair, which more than 1,000 people have signed as of Wednesday afternoon.
The “A Campus Divided” exhibit, which sparked conversations across campus last semester, was on display in Andersen Library from Aug. 14 to Dec. 22 and raised awareness of the University’s history of anti-Semitism, racism and housing segregation of African-American and Jewish students.
The exhibit highlighted Lotus D. Coffman, former University president, as one of the main campus administrators who helped enforce segregationist policies.
The MSA resolution, which seven student groups are co-sponsoring so far, is only focusing on Coffman because it’s the main student center on campus, said Williams.
Williams said the committee hopes this initiative will set a precedent for other buildings to be renamed later on.
She said the resolution and the name change is an opportunity to educate the University community about its history.
In addition to the renaming, Williams said the resolution and its co-sponsors hope to display information about the building’s history and former President Coffman inside the building.
“Because it is grounded in student work and student support, and this campus is for students, I think that ... has an impact on how [administration] makes decisions,” Williams said. “Or at least I would hope.”
Following the exhibit’s opening event in September, President Eric Kaler made a statement calling for an advisory committee on University history.
The committee includes Head of the University Archives Erik Moore and University Historian Ann Pflaum, Dietrick said.
The committee, led by College of Liberal Arts Dean John Coleman, is expected to release its initial recommendations in March, with additional recommendations to come in April.
"The committee members and I take our charge very seriously, and we are doing our due diligence to complete this work thoughtfully and with involvement from University stakeholders," Coleman said in an emailed statement.
The committee will hold forums over the next few weeks to discuss and deliberate possible action, he said in the statement.
Kate Dietrick, the archivist for the Upper Midwest Jewish Archives housed in Andersen Library, said she’s interested to see where discussions from the exhibit lead.
“The intention going into this was not to rename buildings, but just to uncover the stories,” Dietrick said.
However, whatever the outcome of the exhibit, Dietrick said she’s happy to see an interest in history, research and archives.
“The materials that we have here in the archives tell really compelling stories that impact today,” she said.
Apoorva Malarvannan, a global studies and political science junior, and a member of the Rename Reclaim Subcommittee in MSA, said she heard of similar incidences at other schools, and was surprised to discover the history behind University building names.
“When we put someone’s name on a building, that means that we are, sort of, passively honoring them,” Malarvannan said. “The question becomes: do we want to honor someone who practiced … policies that explicitly [were] there to exclude black and Jewish students?”