University of Minnesota prof gets tenure, puts dickish regents on blast

Coffman Union is named for a bigot, and (tenured!) professor Katharine Gerbner wasn't thrilled with how a couple regents approached facing that fact.

Coffman Union is named for a bigot, and (tenured!) professor Katharine Gerbner wasn't thrilled with how a couple regents approached facing that fact. Mark Vancleave, Star Tribune

Katharine Gerbner had good news and bad news last week. 

The good, as expressed in (what else?!) a tweet, was that Gerbner, a Columbia- and Harvard-educated historian and published author, had earned tenure as a professor at the University of Minnesota. That means her job's more protected from termination.

And that means she felt more comfortable authoring the tweets that followed, which detailed Gerbner's infuriating-sounding experience in trying to get the U of M's Board of Regents to reckon with the school's racist past.

Gerbner knows a thing or two about the history of racism in this country: Her 2018 book, Christian Slavery: Conversion and Race in the Protestant Atlantic World explores the intersection of religion, ethnicity, and slave ownership in the United States. If you wanted someone's insight into historic discrimination and its echoes down through the generations, you could certainly do worse than Gerbner.

And her University of Minnesota History department colleagues ain't too shabby, either. Gerbner credits them with creating a "brilliant exhibit" on a dark period in school history: 1930 to 1942, when racists, anti-Semites, and eugenicists ranked among the school's highest-ranking professors and administrators. 

The school overseen by President Lotus Coffman, for whom the school's student union was named, was discriminatory and segregated. A Star Tribune story on the report says the exhibit was "likely to raise questions about whether well-known U administrators involved in discriminatory policies of the past should continue to be memorialized."

And if that debate was easy to see coming, what Gerbner and other faculty didn't expect was just how resistent a couple members of the school's board of regents would be to embracing change. Despite professors, alumni, current students, and even then-U President Eric Kaler, certain board members "came ready to fight" at meetings around the issue, and attacked the work of the very scholars they entrust U students' education to.

Gerbner's tweet-storm is essentially a 27-punch-combination knockout -- and has now been retweeted more than 1,300 times -- so we ought to just let her tell the story herself. 

We'll just add two thoughts: Congrats on tenure, Katharine, you seem like you'll be a good addition to the U as long as administrators stay out of your way.

And lastly: When the Board of Regents needs to slap a name on some fancy new building taxpayers and donors build for them, please, please no one mention John C. Calhoun ... or Tom Austin for that matter.