Katharine Gerbner has tenure now — and she’s not afraid to use it.
The historian of religion at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities “celebrated” her new status on Twitter with a 27-tweet thread about what she called the “history of racism and anti-Semitism” at her institution.
“I felt it wasn’t wise to share my thoughts until my tenure was approved by the Board of Regents,” she wrote. Why? The same board recently voted down a plan to rename several campus buildings with controversial namesakes, after “silencing” faculty experts who had documented those individuals’ racism and anti-Semitism, Gerbner said.
Like many universities, Minnesota is “starting to reckon with its own discriminatory history,” Gerbner explained. She noted that some of that history was displayed two years ago in an exhibit called “A Campus Divided: Progressives, Anticommunists, Racism and Antisemitism at the University of Minnesota, 1930-1942.” And following that exhibit, President Eric W. Kaler formed a task force to further examine racism in the university’s history.
Gerbner said that her own history colleagues involved in the review spent countless hours on it, searching the university’s archives and poring over evidence.
Among other charges, the task force was asked to consider the histories of four campus buildings named after administrators with questionable records on inclusion: Coffman Memorial Union, Nicholson Hall, Middlebrook Hall and Coffey Hall.
Based on its findings, the task force ultimately recommended that each building should be renamed, and that a permanent exhibit exploring the “legacy of the named individuals, including their positive accomplishments and the research detailed” in the report be installed. (The task force also recommended that the “A Campus Divided” exhibit be permanently moved into the student union.)
Coffman Memorial Union at the Twin Cities campus, for example, was posthumously named in 1939 for Lotus Delta Coffman, university president from 1920 to 1938. The task force report says that Coffman is remembered most frequently for having expanded the university in a number of ways.
“Coffman also saw throughout his term increasing demands for equity and inclusion of student populations who were subject to various forms of discrimination,” the report says. “Rather than working to redress these inequities and promote integration, however, Coffman used his authority to exclude African American students from university facilities, most evidently in housing, some medical training programs and athletics.”
Coffman sometimes said he was acting in the best interests of excluded students, according to the report, “but archived correspondence shows that Coffman and other members of his administration regarded exclusion as the presumptive norm, particularly with respect to student housing.”
As to how they measured the administrators’ records and came to their decisions, members of the task force wrote that while it’s “reasonable for today’s values to guide what we wish to honor with the distinction of a naming, we also believe and understand that individuals need to be assessed within the context of their own time and what was then imaginable and possible.”
In an example of anti-Semitism documented in the report, the task force found that Nicholson Hall’s namesake, Edward E. Nicholson, who served as the university’s first dean of student affairs from 1917 to 1941, targeted Jewish students as “communists.” He was found to have targeted black students in the same way and also to have censored campus political speech and surveilled student activists.
Gerbner noted that Kaler, the university president, agreed with the task force’s findings and forwarded the report to the 12-member Board of Regents.
Things got ugly during the regents’ first public discussion of the report, in March, Gerbner said, when several board members accused the task force of taking archival evidence out of context and misleading its audience.
With the board citing time constraints, task force members weren’t allowed to respond to those assertions at that meeting. But some regents continued their criticism after the meeting. Michael Hsu, for example, told the Star Tribune, “Our faculty obviously have tried to bypass the truth.” The report is “completely not credible” and the task force’s “motives are in question,” he also said.
Of Coffman, Hsu said that university regents during his presidency supported segregation in a student residence hall, and that “if you’re trying to understand somebody’s motivations, you have to understand what they are being told to do by their bosses, by people who have control over them.”
Faculty experts involved in the report in turn accused some regents of selectively reading and citing their work.
Then, on April 28, Gerbner said, the regents convened a last-minute meeting to vote on the renaming issue. She attended the meeting and said it was “disturbing” that no task force members were allowed to speak or clear up the regents’ concerns about the report. The board was effectively “silencing” her colleagues about their own work, she said.
“The acting president of the board referred to everyone in the room as the ‘audience’ — we were only to listen,” Gerbner wrote on Twitter. “I watched in both horror and fascination as the tyranny of ‘process’ made me and my colleagues first into ‘hecklers,’ who were accused of ‘disrespect’ and then into a riotous crowd, who were threatened with arrest.”
After what Gerbner called an “audience revolt,” the board finally allowed John Wright, a professor of African American studies, to speak. Wright, a fourth-generation Minnesotan, said his own family had struggled under Coffman, and he highlighted the importance of the black press in the historical record.
Wright’s comments changed the tenor of the conversation, but it was too late — the board already had voted against renaming the buildings, Gerbner said. She added that the whole matter highlights the “importance of tenure, particularly for those who are researching politically sensitive topics. It was the right move for President Kaler to ask only tenured professors to be on the task force.”
Moreover, she said, “discrimination at the University of Minnesota is a history that is close to us today.” And unlike universities that are uncovering complicity in slavery, she said, the conversation in Minnesota is about “a more recent form of racism and discrimination.”
The closer “we get to our present day, the harder it becomes for many people to name and recognize racism or anti-Semitism,” Gerbner said. “But these are the conversations that are the most crucial for changing present practice.”
The board approved a resolution at its meeting saying, in part, that the “public policy issues before us have the board focused on a broader inquiry addressing the social, legal and governance context of the time. Some questions are not answered easily; the lens of history sometimes leaves some issues unresolvable in hindsight. It is important, however, that this university take steps to acknowledge and atone for its past discriminatory practices.
“All agree that we cannot erase that history; we must learn from it,” the board said. “Perhaps the reason why we struggle with naming issues is that we recognize that prejudice persists and our shortcomings often leave us ill equipped to judge others.”
Gerbner said Tuesday that she’s received “supportive responses” about her tweets from students, faculty members and administrators at the university — and nothing at all from the board.
While Gerbner wasn’t on the task force, she said she stands by the report her colleagues wrote and hopes more people will read it.
“I also hope that more people will turn their attention to the individuals who were harmed by the university’s discriminatory practices, rather than focusing solely on the administrators,” she said. The task force worked “very hard to find the stories of people who were affected by the racist and anti-Semitic policies of former university administrators,” and “we should be listening to their stories if we are serious about equity and justice.” And while the recent board meetings were “disheartening,” she said, “change will come as long as we center the voices” of people like Wright. (Wright did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
As for tenure, Gerbner said that “moments like these” are what it’s for.
“Tenured faculty should put their privileged position to use and work tirelessly to create more tenured positions,” she added. “Job security is the key academic freedom issue.”
A Minnesota spokesperson said that neither the university nor the board had anything to add to the public record.