Nearly 5K Sign Petition to Change Name of U of M Coffman Student Union

Coffman Memorial Union Photo: KSTP/Jim O'Connell
Coffman Memorial Union

March 07, 2018 03:57 PM

A group of students at the University of Minnesota is calling for a change to the name of its student union after a recent campus exhibit exposed what they say was segregationist policies carried out by the union's namesake, former university president Lotus Coffman.

Citing the exhibit "A Campus Divided: Progressives, Anticommunists, Racism & Antisemitism at the University of Minnesota 1930-1942," student Chloe Williams authored a petition to strip the union of the name of the university's fifth president.

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Williams writes the exhibit "revealed that numerous administrators … created and enforced discriminatory policies. In particular, former President Coffman oversaw segregation of student housing and surveillance of Jewish and leftist students during the 1930s."

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An online home for the exhibit – which includes more than 100 newspaper articles, essays, abstracts, letters and other documents – says university presidents, deans and other administrators "routinely surveilled students and faculty for their political beliefs and activities. … Racism and antisemitism were part and parcel of campus life. University administrators, with a few important exceptions, were architects of the racially segregated, publicly-financed housing on campus, and approved off-campus housing where Jews were also not welcome."

The petition had received more than 4,700 signatures as of Wednesday morning.

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The petition says many members of student government and multicultural organizations now aim to raise awareness of the school's past and to remove Coffman's name from the building, at 300 Washington Ave. SE. The union houses a number of student groups, including the Minnesota Student Association, the university's undergraduate student government body.

On Tuesday, an MSA committee unanimously approved a resolution sponsored by 24 student groups and a smattering of student leaders and faculty to rename the student union. The resolution also seeks to establish a representative committee of students, staff and faculty to select a new name by the end of this year. 

An MSA spokewoman said the governmental body recommended the building be renamed Memorial Union. Haley Johnson, MSA's communications director, said the next step is to present the resolution to the Board of Regents at an upcoming meeting.

Asked for comment, a university spokesman provided this statement:

The University recognizes the importance of this topic. Last fall, President Eric Kaler and Provost Karen Hanson assembled the "President's and Provost's Advisory Committee on University History," a committee tasked with guiding our community's thinking about the ways in which we shape and are shaped by the history of the University of Minnesota. The committee will provide an update on their work later this semester. We will continue to involve members of the University community in these important discussions, and look forward to discussing the resolution with MSA. 

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Michael Oakes

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