Coffman Union Naming Controversy Kicks into High Gear

Tyler Macdowell

Coffman Memorial Union is a staple of student life here on campus. Housing several popular food options from Panda Express to Starbucks, comfortable study spaces, a game room, and the bookstore, it truly is a one-stop shop for any student here at the University of Minnesota. But recently controversy has come up over whether its name should be changed.

Originally constructed in 1939, Coffman Memorial Union has undergone two separate renovations, most recently 1999-2003. One thing that has remained unchanged with the building has been its name, entitled after Lotus Delta Coffman, president of the University of Minnesota from 1920 until his death in 1938. During his time as president, Lotus Coffman expanded the school and oversaw increases in many key indicators including property value, budget, enrollment and faculty members. But this is about the extent of positive things to say about his time as president.

The aspects of his time as president that have been brought up recently are atrocious and have led to a petition to rename the popular building on campus. During his time as president of the University, he supported several different racist policies. These included limiting the number of Jewish students in attendance and segregating the dorms – even going as far as forcing students of color to be evicted from the dorms if they were mistakenly allowed in campus housing. These policies of antisemitism and racism are the impetus for the petition that has gained nearly 5,000 signatures.

Although these acts were extremely unjust, I don’t see how changing the name from Coffman Memorial Union to the proposed name Memorial Union has an impact on our campus. Although it’s a dark part of the campus’ history, I think it’s almost counterproductive to pretend that the University hasn’t had its struggles. It’s important for us to understand the injustice of past and prevent history from repeating itself. Many students never think twice about what a certain building is named after. The idea that by maintaining the name as it stands now is honoring Lotus Coffman seems disconnected with the way students think. 

By renaming one building, the University sets a precedent that any building or street named after a person with a bad past in a different period should also be renamed. This issue has also been brought up at other prominent universities like Yale and Harvard. It is difficult to find figures with perfect pasts that would offend absolutely no one. Renaming Coffman Memorial Union to simply Memorial Union contradicts the whole system of naming buildings on campus, with the goals of recognizing people who contributed to the university in different ways. If Coffman is to be renamed, it brings up the discussion of in what other cases of naming rights from donors and faculty are names able to be removed, and what sort of investigation must be done before naming a building after a donor.

The idea that a relevant figure in the past should be stripped of all recognition because of immoral actions that at the time were still changing and controversial seems like a big unnecessary step. Which begs the question of where do we draw the line? What other buildings should be renamed? This new call to rename Coffman seems unnecessary.