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University of Minnesota leaders are mulling a new approach to renaming campus buildings two years after a bruising debate on the topic roiled the Twin Cities campus.
At their annual retreat Thursday, President Joan Gabel and members of the university's Board of Regents were in agreement that buildings christened after prominent figures should come up for renaming after several decades so new leaders can be honored. That concept will be incorporated into a new naming policy that will also address whether to rename buildings whose namesakes committed wrongful behavior.
"We only have so many buildings," Gabel said, noting honorary names can last for a building's life span under current policy. "If we want our campus to continue to honor achievement, we don't have the place for that given the way the policy is currently phrased."
Gabel has been working on a new renaming policy since shortly after she took office. Students, a faculty task force and Gabel's predecessor, former President Eric Kaler, pushed to rename four buildings in 2019 after a campus exhibit and report charged their namesakes — all now-deceased university administrators during the 1930s and '40s — with supporting residence hall segregation.
Regents rejected stripping their names from the buildings, citing their historical contributions, a 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.
It remains unclear how the new policy, which is still being developed, would handle such episodes. Gabel and regents focused their discussion Thursday on a long-term strategy for naming buildings. But some factors that will likely be considered when deciding whether to revoke a building name amid revelations of wrongdoing include historical preservation, the harm caused by an individual and whether there is clear evidence of their actions.
Gabel initially suggested letting building names stand for 100 years, barring no wrongdoing, before they are reviewed for renaming. But most regents felt that is too long a span and instead supported renaming buildings after 50-70 years.
"I would feel better if it was 50 years or 70 years … to create opportunity to honor others on a more frequent basis and whole classes of people that have never been able to be honored," Regent Janie Mayeron said. "Our buildings are named basically after men. White men."
The university would keep an updated list of people who are "naming ready" if this policy were to be enacted, Gabel said. It would apply retroactively, meaning that buildings named several decades ago could be eligible for renaming now.
Some regents supported the notion of exempting iconic campus buildings, such as Northrop auditorium, from the renaming policy.
For figures whose names are removed, the university would create a plaque or memorial on campus in their honor and as a way to educate students, Gabel said.
Buildings named after donors would not be subject to renaming, as donors often set contractual terms to keep their names in place for the structure's life span.
Several regents, including Darrin Rosha, praised Gabel's approach to building renaming as positive and forward-looking.
"I really like the idea of the policy being a positive policy," Rosha said, welcoming the departure from the contentious debate that occurred two years ago.
University leaders will consult students and faculty in the coming months on the policy. Regents likely will not vote on the policy until late this year or early next year.
Ryan Faircloth • 612-673-4234