University of Minnesota to examine its 1930s-era discrimination
ST. PAUL—The University of Minnesota will confront the sins of its past after a library exhibit highlighted a troubling era of discrimination against African-American and Jewish students.
President Eric Kaler announced Wednesday he will appoint a committee to "guide our thinking about appropriate modern responses to historical issues on our campuses."
The move comes in response to an exhibit now on display at the university's Elmer Anderson Library. "A Campus Divided" explores activities on the Twin Cities campus from 1930 to 1942, when "racism and antisemitism were part of campus life," the exhibit says.
"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."
Kaler said the project, curated by professor emerita Riv-Ellen Prell and Ph.D. candidate Sarah Atwood, highlights "actions by some in the past that we would condemn today."
"By reflecting on our past, we can and will continue to move forward," he added.
Those under scrutiny in the exhibit include former university president Lotus Coffman and dean of students Edward Nicholson, each of whom has a Twin Cities campus building named for him.
It remains to be seen whether the U will consider scrubbing names from its buildings, as numerous colleges across the country have done in recent years.
Most prominently, Yale University in February removed John C. Calhoun's name from one of its residential colleges because of the 19th century vice president's fervent support for slavery and white supremacy. The city of Minneapolis likewise changed the name of its Lake Calhoun.
The two-floor exhibit on the Minneapolis campus' West Bank suggests the attitudes of U administrators were not merely a product of their time.
In a 1936 letter, Howard University's dean of women expressed "shock" at learning the U's dorms were racially segregated.
"I had always looked upon the University of Minnesota as being a very broad-minded university," she wrote.
Segregated student housing was the unofficial policy under Coffman from 1931 to 1937.
His successor, Guy Stanton Ford, integrated the dorms the first chance he got, Prell said. But his successor, Walter Coffey, reinstituted segregated housing in 1941 before integrating them a year later.
"I feel like we are lying when we pretend, 'How can we judge these people?' " Prell said.
Prell took an interest in this period of the university's history when she learned years ago that Edward Nicholson, the dean of students, had gathered intel on students to aid a 1938 Republican gubernatorial campaign that thrived on antisemitic and anti-communist propaganda.
Prell worked at Nicholson Hall, which houses the Center for Jewish Studies.
Later, she and Atwood combed the university's presidential archives and uncovered letters documenting housing practices that excluded African-Americans and Jews.
Prell said Kaler's committee differs from similar efforts at Yale, Brown and the University of Virginia, which examined ties to slavery. She expects the U to focus on the views and policies of individual administrators, and not only from the era she studied.
Prell said rather than specific outcomes, such as removing the names of problematic figures from buildings, she only hopes to see the U put processes in place for reckoning with its history.
"What's important is that the university has to clarify its values," she said. "It has to decide how to address its past."