“It took me five minutes to be repulsed”: details behind the decision to remove Neill’s name from Macalester building


“Colonial Macalester” taped in place of where Edward Duffield Neill’s portrait once hung. Photo by Malcolm Cooke ’21.

William McMahon, Hannah Catlin

It took Macalester President Brian Rosenberg five minutes of reading college founder Edward Duffield Neill’s “Dahkotah Life and Dahkotah People” to realize that Neill’s name should be removed from the Humanities Building.

Shortly after The Mac Weekly published its special issue “Colonial Macalester,” on Nov. 1, which called on the college to change the name of the Humanities Building and re-evaluate its relationship with indigenous students, staff and faculty, Rosenberg decided he needed to investigate further.

While the building was named after Neill six years ago in 2013, Rosenberg never read Neill’s writings himself.

When Rosenberg read what Neill, a settler-colonialist and white supremacist who founded Macalester in 1874, had written about indigenous people, he was “repulsed.” His decision to recommend the board rename the building came just days later.

“Mostly, [the decision] was driven by my visceral reaction when I read the material,” Rosenberg said. “I didn’t think it was in any way ambiguous. Which is not to say I don’t think these questions are complicated, but in this particular case, I thought it was extreme enough.”

Immediately after reading Neill’s writing, Rosenberg consulted two specific members of the board of trustees: Timothy Hart-Anderson, the Senior Pastor at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian, and Jon M. Walton ’69, a retired pastor from New York City’s First Presbyterian Church.

Both pastors agreed with Rosenberg’s interpretation: that Neill’s writings were inexcusable, even by the standards of his time.

So Rosenberg, along with Hart-Anderson and Walton, moved ahead, formally asking trustees to make one of three choices: approve the renaming of the building, reject the renaming or to wait until the board’s meeting in January to make a final decision.

Rosenberg, Hart-Anderson and Walton recommended renaming the Humanities Building as well as the Neill Room in Weyerhaeuser Hall.

The board responded swiftly. The overwhelming majority of trustees voted via email to accept the recommendation, with not a single member voting against renaming.

“When you put all that together, this one seemed, to me, pretty straightforward,” Rosenberg said. “There was really remarkably little pushback from the board. Even from some of… what I would describe as some of our more traditional members — they were very supportive.”

One member who agreed was Chair of the Board of Trustees Jerry Crawford ’71.

“This is a guy who was an influential figure in the college’s history, in the Presbyterian church’s history, and he was a person who, even when you take into account the times in which he lived, the racist nature of his attitude and his comments were beyond the pail,” Crawford said.

On Tuesday, Nov. 12, Rosenberg decided to announce his recommendation at a faculty meeting.

“My anticipation was if I didn’t say something, others were going to say something,” Rosenberg said. “There were probably going to be faculty members who either raised the question or proposed a resolution and given the fact that I pretty much knew where the board was anyway, it made sense to me to get out ahead of that.

“I just thought it was important that I owned the recommendation that I made to the board,” he continued.

The following Monday, Nov. 18, Crawford and Rosenberg released a joint statement announcing the renaming and next steps in an email to the campus community.

“I think it’s an incredible announcement,” history professor Katrina Phillips, an enrolled member of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, wrote in an email to The Mac Weekly. “I appreciate that the board both acknowledges and recognizes that this is an important step for the college.”

The decision generated positive reaction from students as well.

“I was very surprised that it took so little time,” MCSG President Blair Cha ’20 said. “I think it just means a lot coming from admin — [Rosenberg] and the Board of Trustees.”

Local news outlets such as The Star Tribune and WCCO picked up the story after Rosenberg’s initial announcement, and have done additional reporting in the wake of the board’s vote. While Macalester students favored the decision, many of the online responses to it were negative.

But while detractors cry “historical erasure,” Rosenberg doesn’t see it that way.

“My view is that we’ve been accepting the partial view of history uncritically for a century and a half, and it does not seem unreasonable now to balance the scales a little bit,” Rosenberg said. “This is an act of historical understanding and acknowledgment, not an act of historical erasure.”

Phillips, a historian who studies and teaches indigenous American history, agreed.

“I’m not sure we can ever fully ‘erase’ Neill,” she wrote. “We can recognize Neill for what he accomplished, but we can also recognize that the views he held were terrible views, even during his lifetime.”

To ensure that Neill is not erased at Macalester, the college will determine a “different, appropriate” manner to tell his history in all of its complexity.

Rosenberg said that such a commemoration could take a number of forms, such as a plaque on campus, or a colloquium or lecture series, according to Rosenberg.

“It’s really quite remarkable how many firsts this guy was,” he said. “And at the same time, he was a raging racist when it came to indigenous people. In some ways, it’s kind of an encapsulation of the history of Minnesota. We can learn a lot and understand a lot by studying and thinking about the contradictions of Neill. That’s what I’d like to see.”

Rosenberg also noted that the decision was unique among naming conventions on campus, because it was purely honorific. That distinction means the college has no intention of renaming other buildings on campus that have money attached to the names.

In both the initial statement and an interview with The Mac Weekly, Rosenberg defended the board’s initial decision.

“I truly believe that if the board had seen this in 2013, they would not have named the building [after Neill],” Rosenberg said.

But while many students, faculty and staff were appreciative of Rosenberg’s stance on renaming, some student activists who have been organizing around Neill’s history for years expressed confusion as to why it took him and the board so long to act.

“If we’re at the point now where we’re not re-commemorating racists, I think we’re roughly at about the same point we were before we started re-commemorating racists,” PIPE co-chair Jennings Mergenthal ’21 said.

Elika Somani ’22, who co-facilitated a 2019 International Roundtable Panel about Neill’s white supremacy and the recovery of indigenous names in the broader Twin Cities alongside Michelle Armstrong-Spielberg ’21, agreed.

“If it was that obvious, why didn’t this happen earlier?” Somani said.

Rosenberg felt the board responded to his recommendation well, and noted that many other boards at colleges and universities around the country would have reacted differently.

“We all can look back at things we’ve decided and say we could have made a different decision at the time, but I was really proud of how quickly and emphatically they supported this decision,” he said. “I don’t think that universally would be the case and I don’t know if students understand that.”

Since the building’s renaming in 2013, much of the organizing around the name has been led by Proud Indigenous People for Education (PIPE).

Every year, to coincide with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, PIPE places signs around campus reminding students that the college occupies stolen, indigenous land and renames buildings after indigenous leaders.

This year, PIPE renamed the Humanities Building after Taoyateduta, who led the Dakota during the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.

In the wake of PIPE’s renaming, the American Studies Department began referring to the building as Taoyateduta, and the department has the sign PIPE made about Taoyateduta.

“It just became part of our office life, once that was proposed,” American Studies department chair Karín Aguilar-San Juan said.

Other professors in the Humanities Building — in the German Studies and Spanish and Portuguese departments — have started using Taoyateduta as well.

One of those professors is Molly Olsen, a Spanish professor who expressed support for making Taoyateduta the building’s permanent name.

“As one my students so brilliantly pointed out at that PIPE meeting, learning how to pronounce names is part of [the] decolonization process,” Olsen said.

PIPE co-chair Zoe Allen ’22 has also enjoyed hearing students who may be unfamiliar with the Dakota language use Taoyateduta.

“It’s really cool to hear people pronounce the name and to say it,” she said.

Allen and fellow PIPE co-chair Jennings Mergenthal ’21 both expressed their pleasure at the faculty’s decision to use the name Taoyateduta and their hope that it be considered as a permanent name for the building.

“Personally, I would love that,” Allen said. “I think that would be really amazing to have a building on this campus named after a Native American, and a chief at that.”

Olsen expressed support for a renaming process that allows various members of the campus community to come together, and nodded to the student activists who brought Neill’s history to the fore.

“I think the students deserve something,” she said. “They were the motor, really, in setting this all in action.”

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