The University of Minnesota has been discussing plans to rename some campus buildings that honored previous university leaders who, it turns out, supported discrimination against black and Jewish students. University President Eric Kaler said he supports the move.

The most well-known building to be changed would be Coffman Memorial Union, named for Lotus Delta Coffman, the former U of M president who once said, "The races have never lived together, nor have they ever sought to live together."

While we agree that Coffman's statement is objectionable and has no place in an academic setting - or anywhere for that matter - we do have concerns about the slippery slope society finds itself in when we start scrubbing away our past.

Is the elimination of names of less-than-perfect people from parks and buildings happening too fast? Or, as some might say, is it happening too late? And where does it stop?

Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were slave owners - something that today we agree is sinful. Yet their names still adorn two major monuments in Washington, D.C., as well as countless cities, schools, streets, parks, and other places across the country.

We're not advocating that what's good for Coffman is good for Jefferson. What we would like to see is a more careful study of where the views and actions of the person in question stood in the context of their time.

Of course, even in their time, Washington and Jefferson, as enlightened gentlemen, had to know slavery was wrong. How do we judge them? Or, as some might argue, do their other contributions to the country and the world outweigh their misdeeds?

These are discussions we as a people must have, preferably before, rather than after, making decisions to consign names to the dustbin.

As historian David McCullough has said, "The lessons of history are manifold."

But how are we to learn those lessons if we keep wiping the slate clean?

We're not advocating a free pass for those society now regards as holding wrong views or engaging in less-than-admirable actions.

We do, however, think it behooves us to be careful when applying the standards of today to people of the past.

 

- Rochester Post-Bulletin