How the History of the University of Minnesota is Remembered

 

MemoryThe history of the University of Minnesota is alive in the campus, in the names on its buildings and seminar rooms, and in the markers and portraits that adorn its walls. The official histories of the University of Minnesota honor—and erase—the lives of administrators, faculty, students, and all of the people who have worked here.

How can the University remember those who created—and resisted—the policies of racism, antisemitism, and student rights, to support a diverse and egalitarian community?

Projects that raise the question of memory are often asked if it is fair to look at the past through the lens of the present. Some politicians, citizens, and writers wonder if it is appropriate to focus on decisions taken by leaders without paying attention to all of their accomplishments.

“A Campus Divided” documents the divisions, the debates, and the issues of the 1930s on the campus of the University of Minnesota. If we believe that “most” colleges or universities practiced racial segregation in some form, or that antisemitism was broadly accepted during this period, we exclude the debates that occurred in a time period. It is not hindsight that drives us to remember how problematic segregation was. Were we to accept the racial hierarchy as “normal,” we would erase the dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of people who opposed it at the University of Minnesota between 1931 and 1942. We would erase the impact of fighting fascism in Europe on the lives of people who rejected racism because it resembled Nazism.

Historical memory requires all of us to know what happened to all groups in a society. The histories of those without power are especially important to find and report. The range and variety of voices that reveal the past are key to history. At the same time, we are also called on to understand how those same relationships between the powerful and those with less power shape how we look back on the past. We risk the double injury of an erasure of what happened and how we recall it if we fail to do that.

Consequences

“A Campus Divided” attracted thousands of visitors to Andersen Library where the physical exhibition was mounted. The press coverage in print, digital, radio, and television spread the word about the University’s history and increased interest in the exhibition. Public history reached those who were interested because it was discussed in the public arena, including in the Jewish and African-American press. No one anticipated its success or the extent of public interest. An exhibition of documents spoke eloquently to students, faculty, and staff, as well as people from throughout the region, because it revealed a history that was unknown to most.

 


Press Coverage

American Jewish World

A thorough report on the exhibit, a brief history of the research process, and a detailed account of the various threads of the larger historical narrative. The article ends with one of the central questions posed by the exhibit: how do we choose who to memorialize and how have we commemorated their lives and work? How can we grapple with our shared history and reevaluate public displays of commemoration?

Date

April 26, 2018

Authors

Mordecai Specktor

Minneapolis Star Tribune

Minnesota's largest newspaper devoted multiple pages to the exhibit and the history of on-campus racism, antisemitism, and surveillance. It featured student activists from the 1930s, and drew significant attention to the exhibit from beyond the campus.

Date

March 22, 2018

Authors

Sharyn Jackson

Minneapolis Star Tribune

President Eric Kaler announces the formation of the President’s and Provost’s Advisory Committee on University History in a letter given at a public event for the exhibition.

Date

March 15, 2018

Authors

Sharyn Jackson

Pioneer Press

President Kaler responds to the exhibit in an effort to confront the U’s history of racial segregation. Professor Prell does not call for specific outcomes, but rather that the campus reckon with its history.

Date

March 9, 2018

Authors

Josh Verges

St. Cloud Times

The article announces that a Committee on University History, to be led by Dean John Coleman, will advise President Kaler on how to respond to the exhibit.

Date

March 8, 2018

Pine & Lakes Echo Journal

(See above Verges article in the Pioneer Press)

Date

March 7, 2018

Authors

Josh Verges

Star Tribune

Letters to the Editor. Some agree with the project and think the State of Minnesota should follow the University’s lead in reconsidering the way it facilitated racism and anti-Semitism on campus and beyond. Others are frustrated with the project and are more interested in exploring why “a segment of Minnesota Jewry that once supported Israel almost unanimously now calls out Israel for its criminal treatment of the Palestinians.”

Date

February 19, 2018

Authors

Letters to the Editor

Minnesota Spokesman Recorder

The article describes the panel discussion on the exhibit, including Riv-Ellen Prell, Sarah Atwood, and John Wright at Andersen Library. Wright explains the difference between Southern and Northern racism, the latter based on the building of barriers and “psychological conditioning,” as exemplified by the University administrators in the 1930s and ’40s.

Date

February 15, 2018

Authors

Ivan Phifer

Minnesota Daily

In an interview, Kaler suggests that the “total impact, the weight of accomplishments that an individual provided to the University” should be considered before renaming campus buildings, such as Coffman Memorial Union.

Date

January 16, 2018

Authors

Jonathan Du

Minnesota Daily

Student Body President Trish Palermo calls for renaming of Coffman Memorial Union.

Date

December 2, 2017

Authors

Max Chao

The Society Pages

Professor Prell explains how and why she began to research the University’s history of anti-Semitism and racism, what she believes the project means for University today, and how the exhibit might prepare us for future conversations about memory and how to confront our shared past.

Date

October 3, 2017

Authors

Riv-Ellen Prell

MPR News

Minnesota Public Radio covered the exhibit in a story that interviewed both Professors Riv-Ellen Prell and John Wright, whose aunt was one of the activists featured. It offered several perspectives on renaming buildings that honored key figures in creating racism and antisemitism on campus.

Date

September 27, 2017

Authors

Riham Feshir

Continuum

UMN Libraries include a number of links to articles responding to 'A Campus Divided,' including post-it notes bearing the reflections of exhibit visitors.

Date

September 25, 2017

Authors

Karen Carmody-McIntosh

Minnesota Student Association

Date

September 24, 2017

Authors

Nikil Badey, At-Large Representative; Emma Dunn, Student Group Representative, Minnesota Hillel; Apoorva Malarvannan, At-Large Representative; Sami Rahamim, Student Group Representative, Student Legal Services; Natasha Sohni, At-Large Representative; Chloe Williams, Student Group Representative, Black Student Union

Continuum

Archivist Kate Dietrick describes the three-year process that led to the exhibition 'A Campus Divided' and its impact. She describes the archiving of all of the comments left about the exhibit, and the importance of public history.

Date

September 24, 2017

Authors

Kate Dietrick

Minnesota Daily

Ailts sees the renaming of Coffman Memorial Union as an important and crucial step in confronting our shared past. “If it is inclusion and acceptance that we proclaim to value,” she asks, referencing the U’s 'We all belong here' campaign, “how do we show our commitment to that as an institution?” For Ailts, the answer is making a clear distinction concerning who and what we want to commemorate.

Date

September 20, 2017

Authors

Ellen Ailts

City Pages

More than 1,200 people signed an online petition calling for Coffman Union to be renamed. Supporters include Rep. Ilhan Omar, DFL-Minneapolis, who represents the district where the University campus is located, and who tweeted out a link to the petition.

Date

September 15, 2017

Authors

Mike Mullen

KSTP

Chloe Williams, a UMN student, authors a petition to strip the student union of Coffman’s name and posts it online. As of the writing of this article, about 4,700 people had signed it.

Date

September 14, 2017

Authors

Michael Oakes

Minnesota Daily

Student government votes to rename Coffman Memorial Union, and suggests that other buildings named after administrators featured in the exhibit ‘A Campus Divided’ may also be renamed in the future. These buildings include Nicholson Hall, Middlebrook Hall, and Wiley Hall.

Date

September 14, 2017

Authors

Max Chao

Star Tribune

University of Minnesota undergraduate student government proposes that the name “Coffman” will be dropped from Coffman Memorial Union. The student body voiced “unanimous support for a resolution... to rename the building.” The resolution asks the University to establish a committee of students, staff, and faculty to consider a new name, but suggested that the building simply be renamed “Memorial Union.”

Date

September 14, 2017

Authors

Rilyn Eischens

Star Tribune

Jason McGrath, who is an Associate Professor at the U of M, explains that the renaming of Coffman Memorial Union is less about punishing the sins of the past and more about respecting the experience of individuals in the present. “Respecting the otherness of past historical moments does not require that prejudices that were wrong even in those times continue to be honored today,” he argues.

Date

September 14, 2017

Authors

Jason McGrath

Minnesota Daily

MSA calls for a more specific renaming policy in the case of Coffman Memorial union.

Date

September 12, 2017

Authors

Helen Sabrowsky

Minnesota Daily

“A group of about 50 people silently marched across the University of Minnesota campus to draw attention to the University’s history of discrimination and demand that buildings named after some past administrators be renamed.” The walk was organized by MSA students, but the group was also joined by Students for Revolutionary Socialism as well as a number of U graduate students.

Date

August 23, 2017

Authors

Helen Sabrowsky