Dear members of the University community:
On Friday, March 8, 2019, the University’s Board of Regents held its first discussion about our recommendation to reconsider the names of four Twin Cities buildings: Coffman Memorial Union, and Middlebrook, Coffey and Nicholson Halls. We write to share our views about the Board meeting and how we will work to move this issue forward in the coming months.
Providing an important foundation for discussion
In October 2018 we asked the dean of CLA, John Coleman, and the William L. Prosser Professor of Law and Professor of History, Susanna Blumenthal, to co-chair a Task Force on Building Names and Institutional History. The task force consisted of distinguished faculty with expertise directly relevant to these issues, along with one undergraduate and one graduate student, both of whom could help connect the committee to the experiences of current students who live and learn in these buildings. The work of this task force focused specifically on the Twin Cities campus, though our original charge also envisioned that similar work would eventually be done on all five University of Minnesota campuses.
This Twin Cities group worked diligently and without presupposition to study and present a more detailed picture of some stretches of our University’s history. On the basis of their research, the task force made a number of recommendations to us. We endorsed their recommendations. The president then conveyed those recommendations to the Board of Regents, which has full authority to name or un-name buildings.
The Board formally received the report at its March 8 meeting. The Board chair noted that the recommendations were not to be voted on at this meeting, but that the members of the Board would that day have the first, though not the last, opportunity to hear from the co-chairs of the task force and to begin to discuss the report. The issues raised by the report are difficult, and the discussion initially acknowledged that complexity, with some Board members requesting additional investigative and consultative steps be taken, and additional information be secured by the administration, before further discussion and possible action at the next Board meeting in May.
Our response and next steps
We understand the appropriateness of those requests to the administration. We also recognize some Board members felt the task force we appointed did not include an appropriate span of stakeholders or viewpoints. Some Board members also asked about the role of the Board of Regents during the period studied by the task force, which is a topic we did not include in our charge.
We are troubled, however, that some portions of the March 8 discussion reflected a lack of respect for the efforts and the sincerity and integrity of our distinguished faculty. While there may be deeply felt differences of opinion about the appropriate course of action in the matters under scrutiny, it is surely a core tenet of our University that we make progress in our quests for truth and deeper understanding when we engage in dialogue respectfully.
As president and provost, we share responsibility with the Board of Regents over how this important conversation proceeded. Perhaps with better advance communication we might have avoided a situation that made an already sensitive and contentious situation more unsettling.
We are grateful for the Board chair’s leadership and join with him in pledging to develop a path forward that respects the variety of perspectives in our community and the scholarly expertise and engagement of our faculty. We fully expect that our University norm—of robust, healthy, respectful dialogue—will prevail as we continue this important discussion.
Eric W. Kaler, President
Karen Hanson, Executive Vice President and Provost