Macalester College in St. Paul is removing its founder's name from a campus building after a yearslong effort by students to bring his racist views to light.
The Macalester board of trustees announced Monday that it approved the removal of Edward Duffield Neill's name from Neill Hall, as well as from a room in another campus building. Neill Hall will revert to its former name, "Humanities Building," until a committee chooses a new one.
In an interview, Macalester President Brian Rosenberg said students' research and advocacy prompted college leaders to act.
"Students did the work of going back to the primary sources of Edward Neill's historical writings that essentially no one at the college — and to be fair, no one throughout Minnesota — had done for the previous century and a half," Rosenberg said. "When they did that work and they brought those writings to our attention, we felt as if it was our responsibility to take a look at it."
The move comes at a time of national reckoning with the practice of naming buildings and landmarks after historical figures who promoted views or policies that most now see as racist. Macalester students for years have objected to the use of Neill's name, and some have opted not to use it.
Last month, the Mac Weekly, Macalester's student newspaper, published a special issue that highlighted Neill's racist writings about American Indians and his opposition to coeducation. In a letter that accompanied the issue, the newspaper's editors called on college administrators and the board of trustees to remove Neill's name, and said the newspaper would use the Humanities Building name instead.
Zoe Allen, who co-chairs the student group Proud Indigenous People for Education (PIPE), said she was surprised by how quickly campus officials acted.
"It just kind of resolved itself, which was really amazing," she said. "To have something so publicized, I don't see how the college couldn't do something after that."
The board of trustees voted to change the name of the Humanities Building to Neill Hall in 2013. In a message to the campus community on Monday, Rosenberg and board of trustees Chairman Jerry Crawford said "the renaming was intended to remove confusion — the majority of our humanities departments are not in fact housed in the building — and to honor the founder and first president of our college. It was neither controversial nor extensively discussed at that time."
Neill, a Presbyterian minister, founded First Presbyterian and House of Hope Presbyterian churches. In addition to serving as Macalester's first president, he was Minnesota's first Superintendent of Public Instruction and the University of Minnesota's first chancellor.
In addition to announcing the decision to remove Neill's name, the board of trustees is calling for the college to "determine a different, appropriate manner through which to acknowledge both the accomplishments and the racism of the Reverend Edward Duffield Neill."
Elika Somani, a student who presented research on Neill at a recent campus roundtable, said she can understand why the board renamed the building for Neill, given his contributions to education in Minnesota.
"We wouldn't be the college we are today without him," she said. "I appreciate what Neill has done, but I also understand how much pain and grief he's caused people."
Somani said she thinks the building should have an American Indian name. For some on campus, it already does.
For Indigenous People's Day (Columbus Day) last month, PIPE posted American Indian names on campus buildings. Neill Hall became Taoyateduta Hall, in honor of Little Crow, chief of the Mdewakanton Dakota.
American Studies faculty based in the building decided to stick with it, said Prof. Karín Aguilar-San Juan, the department chairwoman.
"In a way, we were presented with this kind of odd situation," she said. "Do we ignore what we know? No, we can't ignore it."
Emma Nelson • 612-673-4509