The Case for Renaming Coffman Memorial Union


Courtesy of Creative Commons

In a society that is becoming increasingly sensitive to past injustices, the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents put to a vote the decision of whether or not to change the name of Coffman Memorial Union.

One of the most iconic buildings on campus, Coffman was named after the fifth president of the university, Lotus Coffman. During his tenure, president Coffman doubled the property value of the university, increased the budget by over sixty percent, and made massive increases to the number of students and staff members. As such an influential member of the university, Coffman was honored for his eighteen years as the university president by having a building on campus named for him.

Although he had a large positive impact on the university, Coffman’s reputation is now under fire for his racist policies during his tenure as university president. With policies that segregated the dormitories, and limited the number of minorities admitted to the university based on race and religion, most people on campus now consider Lotus Coffman to be an appalling symbol of prior racism at the U of M.

Students on campus have been working for over a year to change the names of four buildings on campus for reasons similar to those cited for Coffman Memorial Union. They have proposed the name of Coffman Memorial Union being changed to simply “Memorial Union.” However, at a discussion on Friday, April 26th, the Board of Regents voted 10-1 against renaming the buildings.

Renaming the buildings on campus would have been a fairly small measure to appease many students on campus, and I feel that it would have spoken measures about the university’s values. Students and faculty alike were upset by the decision, and the team that drafted the proposal is determined to continue to press for the change in the future.

The desire to change the names of buildings on campus is very reasonable, and I can support those who would like to rename the buildings. However, I cannot get behind the argument that racism is the only reason somebody would argue against that side. It is not a current injustice and thus does not currently affect anyone. Additionally, there are many reasons why not to rename the buildings, namely the overwhelmingly positive effects that the namesakes have had on the university. It could also be argued that it is wrong to rewrite history simply due to changing times. However, I can only support that argument if society’s sentiment fluctuates around an issue. I cannot foresee discrimination becoming morally right in the future and thus cannot support the argument against rewriting or erasing history when it comes to simply changing the name of a building. Additionally, no history would be rewritten or erased; we would simply be changing the name of a building due to negative impacts of its namesake.

I understand the arguments made by both sides, but I feel that a significantly harmful impact on the campus should be enough to remove the honor of having a building named after somebody. Did president Coffman double the property value of the U? He certainly did. Did he also significantly increase the school’s budget? You betcha. Institute discriminatory policies towards African American and Jewish students on campus? Once again, yes.

While discrimination was more normal at the time, it is an appalling thought in today’s culture. It would be sensible to look past his positive impact and recognize that his name carries a negative feeling for many minorities on campus. As a university that preaches acceptance of all people regardless of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation, isn’t it ironic to have such an iconic building named for one of the university’s least forward-looking, yet admittedly influential individuals? It seems like a fairly straightforward decision and I look forward to seeing where the university goes with it.