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.

Press Coverage and 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, staff, as well as people from throughout the region, because it revealed a history that was unknown to most.

 

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 the Minnesota Student Association student activists, and both graduate students and faculty participated as well. The day of the event the group was also joined by Students for Revolutionary Socialism.

Date

April 26, 2018

Author

Helen Sabrowsky

Minnesota Daily

The Minnesota Student Association calls for a more specific renaming policy in the case of Coffman Memorial union.

Date

March 22, 2018

Author

Helen Sabrowsky

Minneapolis Star Tribune

Jason McGrath, an Associate Professor at the University of Minnesota, 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

March 15, 2018

Author

Jason McGrath

Minneapolis Star Tribune

The University of Minnesota student government  (MSA) proposes to the Board of Regents that “Coffman” should  be dropped from Coffman Memorial Union. Members 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.” The Board of Regents did not take up the proposal as of August of 2018.

Date

March 9, 2018

Author

Rilyn Eischens

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. This buildings include Nicholson Hall, Middlebrook Hall, and Wiley Hall.

Date

March 8, 2018

Author

Max Chao

KSTP, an ABC affiliated St. Paul television station

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

Date

March 7, 2018

Author

Michael Oakes

City Pages

More than 1,200 people sign an online petition calling for Coffman to be renamed. Supporters include Rep. Ilhan Omar, DFL-Minneapolis, who represents the school campus, and who tweeted out a link to the petition.

Date

February 19, 2018

Author

Mike Mullen

Minnesota Daily

Ellen Ailts’ editorial calling for the renaming of Coffman Memorial Union argues that it is an important and crucial step in confronting a 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

February 15, 2018

Author

Ellen Ailts

Continuum

University of Minnesota archivist Kate Dietrick, who was crucial to the research and design of the  “Campus Divided” exhibition wrote a reflection on it for the Library digital newsletter.

January 16, 2018

Author

Kate Dietrick

Minnesota Student Association

Date

December 2, 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

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

Date

October 3, 2017

Author

Karen Carmody-McIntosh

Minnesota Public Radio News

Date

October 2, 2017

The Society Pages, a publication of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, University of Minnesota

Professor Prell explains how and why she began to research the University’s history of antisemitism 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

September 25, 2017

Author

Riv-Ellen Prell

Minnesota Daily

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

Date

September 24, 2017

Author

Max Chao

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

September 24, 2017

Author

Jonathan Du

Minnesota Spokesman Recorder

University hosts a panel discussion on the exhibit, including Riv-Ellen Prell, Sarah Atwood, and John Wright. Wright explains the difference between southern and northern racism, the latter based on the building of barriers and “psychological conditioning,” as exemplified by the U administrators in the 1930s and ’40s.

Date

September 20, 2017

Author

Ivan Phifer

Minneapolis 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 antisemitism 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

September 15, 2017

St. Cloud Times

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

Date

September 14, 2017

Author

Josh Verges

Minneapolis Star Tribune

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

Date

September 14, 2017

Author

Sharyn Jackson

Minneapolis Star Tribune

Sharyn Jackson’s multi-page article about “A Campus Divided” brought extensive attention to the exhibition and likely had a significant impact on how seriously the University took it.

Date

September 12, 2017

Author

Sharyn Jackson

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

August 23, 2017

Author

Mordecai Specktor