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University of Minnesota leaders discuss new policy for renaming campus buildings

17December 2021

University of Minnesota leaders are considering putting a 75-year expiration date on campus building names and establishing criteria for renaming structures that honor controversial figures.

The proposed changes for how the U names buildings on its five campuses were reviewed Friday by the Board of Regents. Administrators said they are seeking to craft a long-term policy that will allow more figures to be honored and help the university better navigate discussions on what to do with buildings whose namesakes supported harmful policies or ideas.

“A lot of us in higher education have evaluated and re-evaluated what it means to name a building, what it means to honor a historical figure, and what happens to that honor … if a figure has a controversial past,” U President Joan Gabel said.

The naming policy has been in the works ever since a bruising debate on the topic roiled the Twin Cities campus in 2019. Students, a faculty task force and former U President Eric Kaler pushed to rename four buildings in 2019 after a campus exhibit and report charged that their namesakes — all now-deceased university administrators during the 1930s and ’40s — supported residence hall segregation.

Regents rejected stripping their names from the buildings, citing their historical contributions, discomfort with applying modern standards to the first half of the previous century, and concerns about the quality of a report the task force produced.

The proposed policy has gone through several rounds of consultation with campus leaders, students and faculty.

The 75-year term for buildings named after prominent figures would not apply to structures named after donors, whose names would remain through the building’s lifespan unless new information about their pasts prompted a review.

A building named after a prominent figure, not a donor, could keep its name beyond 75 years if the All-University Honors Committee tasked with renaming chose to retain it.

Just over 30 buildings across the U’s Twin Cities, Duluth, Rochester, Morris and Crookston campuses, all built before 1946, would be immediately eligible for renaming if the proposed policy were enacted, Gabel said.

Regents were generally supportive of the 75-year term but had mixed feelings about not applying the same standard to buildings named after donors.

“I would be comfortable saying that a gift or sponsorship could be, by contract, up to but not to exceed 75 years,” Regent Janie Mayeron said, noting the U has “finite assets.”

But Regent Doug Huebsch worried that applying the 75-year term to buildings named after donors could result in fewer and smaller financial gifts. He asked Gabel to consult the U’s foundation about it.

“I think that some people would tend to want to … give a larger gift for perpetuity instead of a 75-year gift,” Huebsch said.

The regents’ discussion centered more on the long-term process for naming and renaming buildings and less on what to do with buildings named after controversial figures.

But documents submitted to the regents indicate the university could rename or revoke the name of any building if it was considered “inconsistent” with the school’s mission, jeopardized its integrity or presented reputational risk or harm. The same could happen if a donor could not fulfill their commitment.

If the naming review is done in response to allegations of wrongdoing, the university will consider that individual’s or entity’s behavior, the strength of evidence and the possible reputational harm of keeping their name in place.

Regent Darrin Rosha suggested that renaming deliberations be done one building at a time rather than reviewing them in groups. In 2019, when the university scrutinized four specific buildings and their namesakes simultaneously, the individuals’ historical records started to blend together, he said.

“The fact that there were four in the same document became a bit of a challenge,” Rosha said. “Having them considered one at a time, I think, is very important to ensuring a fair and comprehensive process.”

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