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Here's why some U of M students want to change the name of the student union

An exhibit takes a new look at the namesake of the U of M's student union

As the University of Minnesota learns more about its past, some on campus are calling for change in the near future. 

In particular, the campus newspaper and the new student body president want a new name for one of the busiest buildings on the Minneapolis campus, Coffman Memorial Union. 

'A Campus Divided'

An exhibit on display at one of the university's libraries has put a spotlight on conflicts between students and administrators in the 1930s and early '40s over issues like segregated housing.

A Campus Divided, which is at the Elmer L. Andersen Library, includes letters from U of M President Lotus Coffman defending the practice of keeping dorms racially segregated.

The exhibit also says that during Coffman's presidency the university approved of off-campus boarding houses refusing to rent to black or Jewish students. 

Coffman's support – and even advocacy – for policies seen as racist and anti-Semitic has led to the calls for a name change at Coffman Memorial Union on the U of M's East Bank.

New student president backs change

According to the Minnesota Daily, the new student body president, Trish Palermo, wrote a Facebook post calling it ironic that many student cultural centers (the Black Student Union, for example) have offices "in a building named after the man who did everything in his power to keep the university segregated."

Palermo wrote she supports renaming Coffman and urged others to get behind the idea, the Daily says. 

The campus newspaper itself has called for a new name, too. The Daily's editorial board says he took racist and bigoted stances and "...any type of glorification of Coffman should not be tolerated on our campus ..."

No change in the works yet

The talk of a name change has not led to concrete steps. A member of the Minnesota Student Association tells the Daily the group has not taken a position on the issue. 

U of M President Eric Kaler reacted to A Campus Divided by putting together an advisory committee to suggest "appropriate modern responses to historical issues on campus." 

In an interview with the Daily, Kaler said it's too early to estimate the chances of the building getting renamed. 

When the Pioneer Press asked the curator of A Campus Divided, professor emerita Liv-Ellen Prell, about changing the name of Coffman Union, she told the paper it's more important for the university to have a process for coming to terms with its history.

“What’s important is that the university has to clarify its values,” Prell said. “It has to decide how to address its past.”

More about Lotus Coffman

Born on a farm in Indiana, Coffman was president of the U of M from 1920 through 1938. 

His bio notes he raised money for some of the landmark buildings on campus, including Northrup Auditorium and the old Memorial Stadium, where the Gopher football team won five national championships in the '30s and '40s. 

Coffman also helped establish one of the country's first college radio stations at the U of M and created the University Art Gallery, which evolved into the Weisman Art Museum

He envisioned the student union, the university says, and its construction started the year after Coffman died.

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