Petition: Take segregationist's name off Coffman Memorial Union

Lotus Coffman didn't live to see the University of Minnesota student union finished. Instead, the building bears his name.

Lotus Coffman didn't live to see the University of Minnesota student union finished. Instead, the building bears his name. AlexiusHoratius/Wikipedia

Lotus Coffman had big plans for the University of Minnesota. 

The school grew tremendously during the years Coffman presided over it, both in student population and in its footprint on campus. New buildings erected during Coffman's 18-year tenure included the Northrop Auditorium and Walter Library, both still standing on the university's mall area. 

Coffman also called for the construction of a student union, which would serve as "the center of [the University's] social life." His wish would come true, though he would not live to see it: Coffman died in 1938, at age 63, and when the student union was completed in 1940, it was named for the University's visionary late president.

Other aspects of Coffman's vision for the University have not stood the test of time quite so well. The school he led was rigidly segregated, with black students explicitly barred from most campus housing. Blacks and whites had "never lived together nor have they ever sought to live together," Coffman once wrote, approvingly.

On another occasion, in 1935, Coffman wrote allowing black students to live in the Pioneer Hall dormitory was "not conducive to their interests, nor to the interest of the other students who may be residing there."

What's more, Coffman's administration monitored its student body for political "radicals" -- a term that at times seemed interchangeable with "Jews" -- and reported some to J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. 

This ugly chapter in school history was explored in a recent exhibit on campus, a timely unearthing that coincided with a nationwide movement to take down statues of Confederate leaders, and rename sites and buildings christened for illiberal figures in history. Minneapolis already renamed -- or, technically, un-renamed -- its biggest lake. Is Coffman Memorial Union next?

The question has been put to a newly formed University committee, which was given the assignment of crafting "appropriate modern responses to historical issues on University of Minnesota campuses." The committee's purview includes the names of the school's "more than 1,000 buildings buildings," as well as decisions on "statues and other symbols of historical figures." 

John Coleman, dean of the school's College of Liberal Arts and chairman of the committee, says he and its members "take our charge very seriously," and will hold a series of public forums in the coming weeks to take public feedback on the topic, and will make recommendations to the school in March.

Here's some early feedback: More than 1,200 people have signed 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 last week.

"Coffman deliberately excluded minority students from their full rights as University students," the petition prompt reads. "As Coffman is home to many of the cultural groups, housed on the second floor, it is antithetical to the University's stated values and commitment to inclusion to bear Coffman’s name on the building."

A resolution co-sponsored by seven student groups will be introduced at a March 6 meeting of the Minnesota Student Association, reports the Minnesota Daily.

University President Eric Kaler declined comment for this story. A University spokesperson emailed a statement on behalf of the school, which read in part: "We look forward to hearing updates from the committee on their work later this semester. We will continue to involve members of the University community in these important discussions."