Point-Counterpoint: Renaming Coffman

You Can’t Change History

By Tala Alfoqaha

Illustrator: Katie Heywood

What do Coffman, Middlebrook, Nicholson, and Coffey Hall all have in common? A quick visit to the “Campus Divided” exhibit at Anderson Hall would reveal that other than the matching red-and-brown brick exteriors, these buildings also all happen to carry the name of a racist white guy (surprise, surprise). And, understandably, people are mad.

Let me be clear: Racism should in no way be honored, commemorated, or perpetuated. Yet the knee-jerk reaction to simply change the names of these buildings glosses over an unaddressed legacy of racism, sexism, and exclusion silently trailing behind the University’s present-day glittering display of progressivism. Instead of renaming the buildings, the University should publicly change the way it recognizes these eponyms and remembers their legacies.

President Lotus Coffman, Comptroller William Middlebrook, Dean Edward Nicholson, and President Walter Coffey were all university administrators through the 1930s and 40s whose prominent positions allowed them to push forth segregationist and blatantly racist policies. The damage wreaked on the lives of African-American, Jewish, and other minority students during this period stands as an irreversible part of the university’s past. Yet neither the historical placards in each building nor the official profiles of President Coffman and Coffey on the University website even bother to mention the discriminatory agendas that these men championed, instead choosing to display conveniently abridged versions of their lives.

Yet history is not a narrative that can be abridged. Regardless of how unsavory the past sounds, it cannot—and should not—be erased from campus consciousness. This institution was built off of the same policies it now abhors, and while renaming these buildings after more deserving individuals may succeed in reflecting present-day values, it only does so by neatly tucking away the names associated with the University’s past of systematic oppression.

There is something wonderfully ironic about how Coffman Student Union Memorial, a building dedicated to housing diverse student groups, carries the name of a man who once pushed for segregation, or how Middlebrook Hall, named after a man with similar ambitions, now houses the international student Living Learning Community. Instead of renaming the buildings, I call on the University to openly shift its position from purely commemorative of these individuals to cognizant of the damage they caused. For starters, placards and website biographies should be revised to accurately depict the bigoted policies that these past administrators prioritized. This way, the University is forced to confront a past antithetical to all the ideals it strives for today without simply painting over the disagreeable parts.

Of course, the University should also celebrate those who championed inclusivity and diversity through avenues arguably more meaningful than a name, such as bestowing awards, erecting statues, commissioning art, and, most importantly, pursuing policies that promote and honor the memory of those who fought to make our campus more tolerant.

While Coffman, Middlebrook, Nicholson, Coffey, and other racist administrators left a damaging legacy that the university must bear, the future is up for the taking. If anything, the names of these buildings stand as a constant reminder of where we came from, how far we’ve traveled, and how far we have yet to go.

The Power in a Name

By: Becca Most

As I walked up the stairs of Anderson Library, a panorama of documents, pictures, charts, and stories laid before me. Large black letters spelled, “A Campus Divided” across the top of a banner, under it a subheading reading “Progressives, Anti-Communists, Racism and Antisemitism at the University of Minnesota, 1930-1942”.

As a student at the University, this was the first time I had read anything negative about the campus’ past. When this exhibit was advertised, I had heard that it was controversial, that it regarded a few racist and anti-Semitic deans of the school including Walter Coffey, Edward Nicholson, and Lotus Coffman—the very same man whose name is etched across one of the most prominent buildings on campus. How could Coffman in particular be involved in something like this if his name was the first thing I saw when taking my walking tour in high school—when his name was visible from my dorm window every time I went to bed?

As I walked further through the labyrinth of letters and quotes and statistics that hung from the exhibit’s walls, the reality of the situation came into even sharper focus. Lotus D. Coffman, I found out, was president of the University of Minnesota from 1920-1938. During his time as head of the University, Coffman was explicit about the kinds of students he wanted at his University. Black students were barred from living on campus, Jewish students restricted from pursuing certain degrees like medicine as “medical internships were sometimes made ‘proportional’ to the number of Jews in the state.” Coffman defended all this with a statement: “The races have never lived together nor sought to live together.”

How has the University allowed the name of this man, and many others like him, to continue to stand on our buildings? At the very least they should rename them. However, simply renaming something comes with an air of forgetting what happened. And we cannot do this. Education and active change is what is needed from the University of Minnesota. Because men like Coffman are not men we should be proud of. They do not resemble the evolving campus we are today.

Coffman divided students intentionally, picking apart their differences and separating them from what he deemed appropriate and necessary for the University to function correctly. He refused to meet with people who disagreed with him or students who protested his blatant discrimination. He labeled his opposition “communists,” and encouraged the use of the term “leftist” to describe someone disruptive, someone who should be feared.

It’s been nearly 80 years since Coffman left the school, but his name is still written on one of our most important foundations. This fact brings up questions we have yet to address. Is this something we’re proud of? Do his actions and his ideologies warrant such an honor? Because really, isn’t it the people we choose to idolize who reveal what we accredit “honor” to be?

The University of Minnesota has a link on its website to a page describing the history of each of its presidents. On Coffman’s page, there is not a single mention of his treatment toward protesting students, of his racist and anti-Semitic policies, of his unethical and immoral behavior while in office. In fact, there is only positivity, even including an in-depth narrative telling his story from a farm boy to an educator. It commemorates him for building Northrop Auditorium and ends with the statement, “During Coffman’s nearly two decades as president, the reputation of University of Minnesota graduate education and research increased both regionally and nationally.”

How can we move forward as a school if we don’t mention the ugliness of our past? Only in embracing and educating ourselves can we attempt to move forward as a society. Ignorance is detrimental to progress. There’s no way around that. But just putting a new name on a building and brushing the other one under a rug isn’t the way to go either. The administration needs to embrace the wrongdoings more publicly, rewrite the biographies of presidents and staff, and encourage students to know more about the unattractive aspects of the U.

And if not, then explain to us why his name still stands.

At the end of the “Campus Divided” exhibit, students had the option to comment their thoughts and opinions about the topics that were brought up. The entire back wall was covered in tiny post-it notes of yellow, pink, and orange, each scribbled with messages in blue ink. One of them sponsored a “#RENAME COFFMAN,” while another read “Rename buildings with new historical names—not in memoriam of people who discriminate.”

Hopefully the Minnesota Student Association will come to the same conclusion. The University of Minnesota needs to educate and reflect the values it claims to uphold. Hold more widespread forums discussing racial division, rewrite the biography of Lotus Coffman online, broadcast instead of brush aside past injustices. When we have names of buildings supporting men like Coffman, it underestimates the tremendous power that resides in a name.

To put a name on something is to be proud of what that name embodies. For a name is much more than a string of words but an idea, a set of values, and with it, a commitment to uphold those values. Your move UMN. I think it’s time for a change.