Katharine Gerbner had good news and bad news last week.
The good, as expressed in (what else?!) a tweet, was that Gerbner, a Columbia- and Harvard-educated historian and published author, had earned tenure as a professor at the University of Minnesota. That means her job's more protected from termination.
And that means she felt more comfortable authoring the tweets that followed, which detailed Gerbner's infuriating-sounding experience in trying to get the U of M's Board of Regents to reckon with the school's racist past.
Gerbner knows a thing or two about the history of racism in this country: Her 2018 book, Christian Slavery: Conversion and Race in the Protestant Atlantic World explores the intersection of religion, ethnicity, and slave ownership in the United States. If you wanted someone's insight into historic discrimination and its echoes down through the generations, you could certainly do worse than Gerbner.
And her University of Minnesota History department colleagues ain't too shabby, either. Gerbner credits them with creating a "brilliant exhibit" on a dark period in school history: 1930 to 1942, when racists, anti-Semites, and eugenicists ranked among the school's highest-ranking professors and administrators.
The school overseen by President Lotus Coffman, for whom the school's student union was named, was discriminatory and segregated. A Star Tribune story on the report says the exhibit was "likely to raise questions about whether well-known U administrators involved in discriminatory policies of the past should continue to be memorialized."
And if that debate was easy to see coming, what Gerbner and other faculty didn't expect was just how resistent a couple members of the school's board of regents would be to embracing change. Despite professors, alumni, current students, and even then-U President Eric Kaler, certain board members "came ready to fight" at meetings around the issue, and attacked the work of the very scholars they entrust U students' education to.
Gerbner's tweet-storm is essentially a 27-punch-combination knockout -- and has now been retweeted more than 1,300 times -- so we ought to just let her tell the story herself.
We'll just add two thoughts: Congrats on tenure, Katharine, you seem like you'll be a good addition to the U as long as administrators stay out of your way.
And lastly: When the Board of Regents needs to slap a name on some fancy new building taxpayers and donors build for them, please, please no one mention John C. Calhoun ... or Tom Austin for that matter.
First of all, the good news: I got tenure!— Katharine Gerbner (@ktgerbs) May 9, 2019
I want to celebrate my job security with a #thread about the history of racism & anti-semitism at the U. of Minnesota. I felt it wasn't wise to share my thoughts until my tenure was approved by the Board of Regents. Let me explain. /1
2/ Like many Universities, the U. of Minnesota is starting to reckon with its own discriminatory history. This history was displayed in a brilliant exhibit two years ago, called “A Campus Divided.”https://t.co/XDTZ23RBxS— Katharine Gerbner (@ktgerbs) May 9, 2019
3/ After the exhibit, UMN President Kaler called a Task Force to investigate the University’s discriminatory history, and he asked several faculty, including many of my colleagues in the History department, to be part of this committee.— Katharine Gerbner (@ktgerbs) May 9, 2019
4/ The faculty on the Task Force are all tenured & have been recognized widely for their extraordinary scholarship. These women and men spent hundreds of (volunteer) hours digging in University archives and examining evidence. Full report here: https://t.co/4oc8FricqU— Katharine Gerbner (@ktgerbs) May 9, 2019
5/ The Report outlined the segregationist policies of former University administrators, including University President Coffman. They also showed that one former Dean surveilled student activists, and specifically targeted Jewish students, often referring to them as “communists.”— Katharine Gerbner (@ktgerbs) May 9, 2019
6/ My colleagues recommended that the University re-name four buildings at the University, but also that they go further than naming by launching curricular, education, archival, student, and community initiatives.— Katharine Gerbner (@ktgerbs) May 9, 2019
7/ President Kaler agreed with the Task Force, and sent the Report to the Board of Regents. The Regents, a group of 12, are elected by state legislature, and control many major decisions at the University, including tenure and the naming of buildings. https://t.co/Fi4SQkMlWb— Katharine Gerbner (@ktgerbs) May 9, 2019
8/ The co-chairs of the Task Force presented their findings to Board of Regents at their March 8, 2019 meeting. The full meeting is online. Discussion of the Task Force begins around hour 2:20. https://t.co/j2ketTTAQ1— Katharine Gerbner (@ktgerbs) May 9, 2019
9/ For those who don’t want to watch the meeting, here's a summary: two Regents came ready to fight. They attacked not only the Report, but also the scholars who created the report, suggesting that they had misled readers by taking archival documents out of context.— Katharine Gerbner (@ktgerbs) May 9, 2019
10/ The President of the Board of Regents, claiming lack of time, did not allow my colleagues to respond to the attacks that were made about the Report or their scholarly integrity. Those same Regents then went to the press, and repeated their attacks.— Katharine Gerbner (@ktgerbs) May 9, 2019
11/ One of the Regents made the following statement to the Star Tribune: "Our faculty obviously have tried to bypass the truth. At the end of the day, I think their report is completely not credible and their motives are in question." https://t.co/CfaoJdm9Nj— Katharine Gerbner (@ktgerbs) May 9, 2019
12/ After the disastrous March meeting, the Regents convened a last-minute meeting on April 28, 2019 to vote on the recommendation to rename buildings. They did NOT invite members of the Task Force to speak, or to respond to the accusations that had been levied against them.— Katharine Gerbner (@ktgerbs) May 9, 2019
13/ I went to the April 28 meeting to support my colleagues. We watched as some of the Regents continued to attack not only the conclusion of the Report, but also interpretation of sources. Again, NO HISTORIANS WERE ALLOWED TO SPEAK. Full video here: https://t.co/qgFyU6dAwf— Katharine Gerbner (@ktgerbs) May 9, 2019
14/ What was so disturbing about the Board of Regents meeting was watching how voices were silenced. As a historian, I examine archives as sources of information and as sites of oppression. I try to read them against the grain, to understand the lives of people who were silenced.— Katharine Gerbner (@ktgerbs) May 9, 2019
15/ At the April 28 meeting, I watched the process of silencing. The acting President of the Board referred to everyone in the room as the “audience” — we were only to listen. Several in the audience challenged him by shouting.— Katharine Gerbner (@ktgerbs) May 9, 2019
16/ 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.— Katharine Gerbner (@ktgerbs) May 9, 2019
17/ Yes, I said arrest. Let’s pause a minute, b/c it’s nuts. The acting President of the Board threatened to remove faculty & students when they asked the Board to let members of the Task Force answer questions that the Board raised about the Report that THEY HAD WRITTEN.— Katharine Gerbner (@ktgerbs) May 9, 2019
18/ After an audience revolt, the Board allowed Prof. John Wright, a 37-year member of the faculty & founder of the African American Studies dept, to speak. Wright, a 4th-gen. black Minnesotan, described his family’s struggles under Coffman. https://t.co/nWGeyLc15i— Katharine Gerbner (@ktgerbs) May 9, 2019
19/ Wright made the crucial point that if we want to understand the consequences of racist University practices, we should not look to the University archives, but to the Black press, which carefully documented African Americans' efforts to gain access to higher education.— Katharine Gerbner (@ktgerbs) May 9, 2019
20/ This point is essential: we need to ask ourselves WHO WE ARE LISTENING TO and WHAT WE ARE READING in these debates about history & legacy. I believe we need to turn our attention to people like Dr Wright whose families were directly affected by the legacies of discrimination— Katharine Gerbner (@ktgerbs) May 9, 2019
21/ It took protest and possible arrest to force the Regents to give Professor Wright the platform to speak. Once he did, it changed the tenor of the conversation. The Board had already voted against renaming, but I don’t think they would have if Wright had able to speak earlier.— Katharine Gerbner (@ktgerbs) May 9, 2019
22/ A few other thoughts. First of all, this situation has highlighted 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— Katharine Gerbner (@ktgerbs) May 9, 2019
23/ The erosion of tenure & disinvestment in higher ed is threatening this nationwide. Universities rely on contingent faculty who do not have financial or job security. It’s easy for those who have tenure to forget or minimize this problem. We can't. We need to fix it.— Katharine Gerbner (@ktgerbs) May 9, 2019
24/ 2nd: the discussion about discrimination at the University of Minnesota is a history that is close to us today. Unlike Universities that are uncovering complicity in slavery, the conversation at the U. of MN is about a more recent form of racism and discrimination— Katharine Gerbner (@ktgerbs) May 9, 2019
25/ As a result, I have seen and heard many people defend the segregationist practices of former University administrators by making a version of the following statement: “We can’t judge them. There were different standards in those times.”— Katharine Gerbner (@ktgerbs) May 9, 2019
26/ The closer we get to our present day, the harder it becomes for many people to name and recognize racism or anti-semitism. But these are the conversations that are the most crucial for changing present practice.— Katharine Gerbner (@ktgerbs) May 9, 2019
27/ We shouldn’t see Coffman or the others as cartoon villains; it is only by seeing them as complex people who did great things while also perpetuating racism and anti-semitism that we can see how easy it is to be both a “good person” and a perpetuator of white supremacy.— Katharine Gerbner (@ktgerbs) May 9, 2019