University of Minnesota considers renaming Nicholson Hall

The University of Minnesota is considering changing the name of Nicholson Hall after some faculty raised concerns that Edward Nicholson’s actions stoked antisemitism and political repression when he served as dean decades ago.

“Edward Nicholson’s performance as the Dean of Student Affairs was distressingly interwoven during his tenure in the web of antisemitism and anti-democratic political repression in Minnesota and nationally,” four current and former directors of the U’s Center for Jewish Studies wrote in a 48-page paper requesting the name change. “He brings no honor to the University of Minnesota.”

The U’s Board of Regents has updated its policies in recent years to allow buildings to be renamed if the name is inconsistent with the U’s mission, jeopardizes its integrity, or “presents risk or harm to the reputation of the University.” Those policies grew out of a 2019 controversy, when regents faced an outcry from people who wanted them to rename four buildings — including Nicholson Hall — because their namesakes had been accused of backing segregation or engaging in other racist practices.

U leaders said this is the first request they’ve received under the new policy provision. They announced in an email to students and employees last week that they would be accepting public comments until 5 p.m. March 18. A final decision on the name could come later this year.

Nicholson Hall is on the corner of Pillsbury Drive and Pleasant Street and, according to Minneapolis Star-Journal archives, this is at least the fourth name it’s had. Regents decided in 1945 to name the building, then often referred to as “the Old Union,” after Nicholson, who began working at the U as a chemistry instructor in 1895 and went on to serve as its first dean of student affairs from 1917 until his retirement in 1941. He died in 1949.

The building houses, among other things, the Center for Jewish Studies. Many of the people requesting the name change have taught classes there or had offices there.

“I can only speak for myself, but the more we learned about how the dean of students behaved, the more disturbed we were about why he was being honored by the University of Minnesota,” said Riv-Ellen Prell, a professor emerita of American Studies who is working on the renaming effort.

Prell said she first learned about Nicholson when she read an article that mentioned he had worked with Ray Chase, a conservative politician accused of masterminding antisemitic tactics used in political races in the late 1930s.

Between 2016 and 2023, Prell estimates that she and others spent more than 100 hours looking through FBI reports, Nicholson’s and Chase’s records, news stories and other documents to better understand Nicholson’s tenure.

The group wrote that Nicholson restricted mail delivery and limited speakers in ways that quashed political dissent. They said he enlisted others to help him surveil student groups, keeping reports that referred to students in racist and antisemitic terms. They said he shared some of that information with people outside the U, including political operatives and the FBI. And they said he worked to inappropriately influence regent selection.

“We are all affected by the university choosing to honor those who uphold or fail to uphold its highest values,” Prell said.

The renaming has so far gathered public support from Jewish and Christian leaders in Minnesota. After the commenting period ends, the All University Honors Committee, a group of staff, students and others who consider potential recipients of university honors, will provide a recommendation, as will interim President Jeff Ettinger. A final decision will be made by the Board of Regents, possibly in June.

Comments can be submitted online, or people with questions can contact or call 612-625-9369.

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