What's in a Name?

An exhibit about a divisive period of the U's history sparks a debate over how to acknowledge the past.

By Elizabeth Foy Larsen


For years, American Studies emerita professor Riv-Ellen Prell walked through the doors of Nicholson Hall on her way to the University of Minnesota’s Center for Jewish Studies. An anthropologist who specializes in the American Jewish experience from the late 19th century to the present, Prell was unaware that the man for whom the building was named, Edward E. Nicholson, had as a dean spied on students to identify “agitators” opposed to the United States entering World War II. He reported those student activists, especially Jewish activists, to a political operative who believed the U was teeming with communists. Some of Nicholson’s reports were even passed on to the FBI.

“Month after month, year after year, I walked into a building that was named for a man who was an overt anti-Semite,” says Prell. “This beloved ‘Dean Nick’ was, in fact, in charge of a campaign that minimized student rights.”

Sp2018_WhatsinaName3_InlineDiscovering this little-known piece of U history prompted Prell to retire from teaching a year early to collaborate with American Studies Ph.D. candidate Sarah Atwood on an exhibit called, “A Campus Divided: Progressives, Anti-Communists, Racism, and Anti-Semitism at the University of Minnesota, 1930-1942.” The exhibit, which was shown last year in the Elmer L. Andersen Library and is still available online (acampusdivided.umn.edu), is a compelling and surprising exploration of a time when the U’s Twin Cities campus was divided by issues that included student rights, economic equality, and racism.

The exhibit brought to light another chapter of the U’s history: Lotus D. Coffman, president from 1920 to 1938, vehemently and actively opposed racially integrated student housing. That revelation has led some students to call for the renaming of Coffman Union, which bears his name.

Sp2018_WhatsinaName4_InlineHow to address history’s past events and beliefs in the context of today’s values is a struggle that’s taken hold across the country. Last year, Yale University renamed Calhoun College as a way to acknowledge that John C. Calhoun, for whom the college was named, actively promoted slavery as a “positive good.” In Minneapolis, Lake Calhoun has been renamed Bde Maka Ska, its original Dakota name, for the same reason.

Sarah Atwood was combing through archived papers left by U presidents when she came across evidence of Coffman’s racial views. “No rule has ever actually been adopted denying colored students admission to the University dormitories,” reads a 1931 letter, which became part of the exhibit, from Coffman to the president of the Minneapolis branch of the NAACP regarding a black student denied dorm housing. “No colored student has applied before for admission to the University dormitories. The good sense and sound judgment of the colored students and their parents with regard to this matter has been a source of constant gratification.” Coffman’s dubious assertions were protested by black and white students alike.

Sp2018_WhatsinaName5_InlineThe segregation of student housing forced African Americans to either live at home or in a designated settlement house far from campus. This unofficial housing policy lasted from 1931 to 1937 and was reversed by President Guy Stanton Ford when he took office in 1938; the next president, Walter Coffey, would bring segregation back.

Intended to spark awareness and conversations about the U’s history, the exhibit was a revelation to many. “I didn’t know anything about the history behind Coffman Union before the ‘Campus Divided’ exhibit,” says Chloe Williams, a junior majoring in communication studies and the director of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee at the Minnesota Student Association. Williams is part of the student-led initiative to rename the iconic building, which not only serves as the student union but also houses many of the U’s multicultural organizations. “Our committee wants to find a way to make people on campus feel comfortable now that this information is public.”

Sp2018_WhatsinaName2_InlineIn addition to a name change, the committee has asked the U to consider adding a plaque inside the building explaining Coffman’s views. “Even if the building’s name is changed, we want people to understand the history,” says Williams.

In determining its policy for renaming buildings, Yale considered positions that spanned from never renaming a building to renaming all buildings after a period of 50 years. In the end, they decided that Calhoun’s primary legacy was so in conflict with the school’s mission and values that a name change was appropriate.

Last September, U President Eric Kaler announced that he was creating an advisory committee, helmed by College of Liberal Arts Dean John Coleman, “to guide our thinking about appropriate modern responses to historical issues on our campuses.” The committee—which includes a U historian as well as staff, faculty, students, alumni, and community members—won’t settle the question of whether to rename Coffman. But, it will come up with guidelines for how the U might consider and reckon with these issues.

“We are considering principles for renaming/naming/unnaming, and how to achieve a broader awareness of and learn from our history,” says Coleman. “We also will consider how to honor and memorialize those who have played important but perhaps under-recognized roles in righting wrongs in University history.”

“We were asked to reflect on the U’s history and think about how we will learn from [it],” he says. The committee is expected submit its full recommendations by May.

Main Image by Chris Cooper

Documents (pictured above) from "A Campus Divided" exhibit led the U and students to look at how buildings are named and, possibly, renamed. The bottom image is of a folder found in Coffman Union 60 years after it was used. It includes an anti-Semetic exchange between heads of student unions and statistics tracking the enrollment of Jerwish and African American students, labeled confidential.

Share your thoughts on the President's and Provost's Advisory Committee on University History website.

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