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U regents take no action on renaming campus buildings

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Regents listen during a meeting April 26, 2019
University of Minnesota regents and President Eric Kaler listen during a meeting Friday.
Cody Nelson | MPR News

Updated 5:06 p.m. | Posted 3:48 p.m.

University of Minnesota leaders on Friday declined to change the names of four campus buildings named for former administrators, despite a task force recommendation to change the names.

University regents spent more than two hours discussing whether to rename the buildings after the report found a pattern of racism and anti-Semitism by the namesakes. 

Ultimately, the board opted not to change anything. 

In a 10-1 vote, regents agreed to a resolution to keep current names for Coffman Memorial Union and Nicholson, Middlebrook and Coffey halls, contradicting the recommendations of U President Eric Kaler and the university task force charged with studying the former administrators' history.

A crowd packed the Board of Regents meeting
A crowd packed the Board of Regents meeting at the University of Minnesota Friday.
Cody Nelson | MPR News

The boardroom was packed with university faculty and students who favored changing the building names. When regents spoke against renaming the buildings, the crowd would laugh; occasionally, someone would shout in protest.

"He welcomed a Nazi ambassador onto our campus!" one attendee shouted during a discussion of Lotus Coffman, a former U president. 

Professor John Wright speaks to University of Minnesota regents
Professor John Wright speaks to University of Minnesota regents at a meeting Friday.
Cody Nelson | MPR News

At one point, some 50 people took over the meeting and pushed regents to let African-American studies professor John Wright speak about the history of race on the U campus. 

He said past policies discouraged students of color from attending the university, and that racial discrimination remains, though it looks different than it did decades ago.

The U's student government group, the Minnesota Student Association, has pressed regents to remove Coffman, Edward Nicholson, William Middlebrook and Walter Coffey's names from buildings for over a year. 

"We reject memorializing any legacy of exclusion and discrimination and we stand firmly in support of un-naming these four buildings," the group wrote in a statement this week.

Student body president Simran Mishra said it's a matter of when the buildings get renamed — not if. She said the Minnesota Student Association will continue pushing for new building names and addressing bigger issues of race and oppression on campus.

Students protest building names at a regents meeting
University of Minnesota students protest building names at a regents meeting Friday.
Cody Nelson | MPR News

"The next step is to make sure we continue to look beyond unnaming and renaming to the deeper reckoning that needs to happen to ensure that the students who have been marginalized as long as our university has existed are supported institutionally and systematically," she said.

The former administrators, all dead now, were in leadership posts during the 1920s through the 1960s. Their actions ranged from barring non-white students from U housing to spying on students who had opposing political views or were Jewish.

For example, Coffman — whose name is attached to the current student union — repeatedly excluded black students from student housing. "The races have never lived together, nor have they ever sought to live together," he wrote in 1931 when he was U president.

But Coffman also created the now-shuttered General College, which was later heralded for helping low-income and students of color attend the university. 

Regent Michael Hsu was one of the loudest voices Friday against renaming the buildings. He suggested it was a poor use of time and defended some of the former administrators. 

"We're spending way too much time on this particular issue," Hsu said. "If we all spent this much time on the budget, we'd actually be able to solve some problems."

Regent Abdul Omari favored renaming the buildings. He said some other regents didn't understand that past administrators actions were anti-Semitic and racist.

"I think that is the problem we have here right now," he said.