Just a week after University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler announced recommendations for renaming Coffman Union and three other buildings on campus, members of the Board of Regents heavily criticized the renaming process in what turned out to be a contentious meeting Friday.
In the board’s first major public discussion on the renaming efforts, several regents found fault with the University’s process of reviewing administrators who upheld racist and anti-Semitic practices on campus. Some regents questioned the rigor and accuracy of a University task force charged with examining building names, while others raised concerns about judging historical figures based on contemporary standards.
The board is expected to continue debate on renaming, with a vote expected later this spring.
Regent Darrin Rosha was perhaps the most vocal critic, digging into the task force's recently released 125-page report — which called for the renaming of Coffman Union, Nicholson Hall, Middlebrook Hall and Coffey Hall — saying the report lacked evidence to back up charges of racism and anti-Semitism against former administrators.
“Let’s face it, this was a trial,” he said. “I don’t believe that anyone was assigned to challenge the orthodoxy. I don’t believe that the accused were provided any opportunity for counsel, representation or anyone to speak on their behalf.”
Rosha said the report was “seeking an end” and used “broad-brush accusations” against former administrators, despite uncertainty about facts highlighted in the report.
“When I heard about this, I was expecting white-hooded, brown-shirted racists spewing all this kind of vitriol against these people. And quite frankly, I saw administrators struggling with what appears to be a board that was holding to older positions,” he said.
Regent Thomas Anderson also voiced concern, saying he was “really, really troubled with what came forward.”
“We are being asked to judge individuals on how they judged others almost 100 years ago. Yet, we live in a different society than they did,” Anderson said. “The irony of today is that we are being asked to do exactly what these men are accused of: We are being asked to pass judgment.”
Anderson said he didn’t think regents could fairly judge former administrators’ actions.
“I don’t know if I’m qualified to administer a ruling on someone's place on a morality scale. I think that’s actually a decision left for a higher power,” he said. “Quite frankly, I wish we could have a University — and an America, for that matter — that celebrated one’s achievements rather than [limited] one’s accomplishments by default.”
John Coleman, co-chair of the Task Force on Building Names and Institutional History, said the report tried to reflect the complex legacies of historical figures, examining both the “positive and problematic aspects of their history.”
“We’ve tried to be extremely fair in this document about acknowledging the contributions of the four men,” he said, noting the difficulty of “evaluating the past from the context of the present.”
However, Regent Michael Hsu disagreed with this assessment, pointing out that he believes crucial information was omitted from the report.
“It did not come off as fair as I expected,” he said. “I just have a concern that the quality of work here is not quite what it needs to be before we make a decision.”
Regent Abdul Omari pushed back against other regents’ criticism about the report. He was one of the only regents to do so.
“Regent Rosha should write the next report, and I don’t say that facetiously. I actually would love to see what you would come up with,” he said.
Omari said he was not as concerned about the historical context in which former administrators acted.
“What I have read and what I have seen certainly suggests there was overt racism and anti-Semitism taking place on campus from several members and likely more who are on buildings. I don’t see a context or a time where that’s OK,” he said.
Regent Richard Beeson said he wanted to see more research on the administrators in question, including reaching out to administrators’ family members to obtain historical documents.
“We are dealing with people who can’t defend themselves, obviously, and whose descendants are concerned about the revisiting of history eight decades later with the full force of the University's administration behind it,” he said. “I’m looking for more information and more thinking about historical context.”
Beeson questioned whether administration's actions were out of place compared to times they lived in. He noted other forms of discrimination in the early 20th Century, including the Twin Cities’ history of segregation and anti-Semitism.
University law and history professor Susanna Blumenthal, who co-chaired the task force, said administrators were not just “men of their times.” She said changing building names is not about condemning former administrators or erasing the University’s history.
“Erasure is not what we are about. But to change is not always to erase,” she said. “Change has made this a more equitable and inclusive place for those who live and work on this campus.”
The Minnesota Student Association — which passed a resolution last year in support of renaming Coffman — called the regents’ discussion “deeply disappointing.”
“Many regents expressed sentiments that disregarded the work and academic integrity of University faculty members, the serious charges of antisemitism and racism levied against the administrators in question, and the wishes of the student body as a whole,” wrote MSA in a statement.
Blumenthal said the task force approached removing building names with humility and care for the University’s history.
“The changing of a building name is importantly distinguishable from the burning of a book or other sorts of infringement on academic freedoms,” she said.
Board Chair David McMillan acknowledged there are “varying views on the subject” of renaming, asking community members to be “understanding and accepting of differences in perspective.”
“This isn’t simple or easy, despite what some might say,” he said. “Let’s make room for decision by all on this challenging question.”
McMillan said many members are interested in receiving “a more complete record about what we know and don’t know," including information about regents’ beliefs and governing practices at the time.
“This is consequential and important stuff for this University, its governing board, this state and the people who reside in it,” he said.
College of Liberal Arts Dean John Coleman wrote in an email to the Minnesota Daily that the board's response was troubling.
"I was troubled by the poor treatment of our faculty. And I was perplexed, to say the least, that the Board did not provide an opportunity during the meeting to respond to inaccurate characterizations of the Task Force’s work," he wrote.
Update: This was a breaking news report, the story was edited to include more information.