Lotus D. Coffman was born on a farm in Indiana, raised by his mother, following his father's early death. He attended the Indiana State Teacher's College in Terre Haute beginning in 1896, before becoming a secondary teacher and later a superintendent. By careful stewardship of his modest means, Coffman saved the necessary funds to allow him to spend two years at Columbia Teachers College. His exceptional ability allowed him to function simultaneously as both student and lecturer. Coffman was subsequently recruited by the University of Illinois to establish a college of education, later becoming its dean. In 1920, he was selected as the fifth president of the University of Minnesota when his predecessor, Marion Leroy Burton, accepted the presidency of the University of Michigan.
The 1920s were a heyday of private fund-raising—marked by successful campaigns for private support for the 50,000-person football stadium created as a memorial to veterans of World War I as well as the 4,700 seat Northrop Memorial Auditorium, named in honor of the University's second president, Cyrus Northrop. Memorial Stadium was home for Gopher football from 1924 through 1981. Offering a source of pride that was much-needed during the depression era, fans in Memorial Stadium, as well as thousands more listening on the radio, spent football Saturdays fixated on the fortunes of Bernie Bierman's Golden Gophers. Their loyalty was rewarded: between 1932 and 1941, the team won three National Championships and six Big Ten titles.
Northrop Auditorium was completed in 1929. It served the University and the community as a site for concerts, lectures, convocations, and commencement ceremonies. The auditorium was also the home of the University Art Gallery from 1936 until 1993, when it moved to architect Frank Gehry's much-admired Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum overlooking the river. The Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra performed in Northrop from 1929 to 1974, and the Metropolitan Opera brought its spring tour there from 1945 to 1984. Northrop Auditorium is known today for bringing unique jazz and dance performances to the Twin Cities.
Despite economic challenges in the wake of World War I and the depression in the 1930s, the Coffman years were a time of educational experimentation. Two new colleges were established. A forerunner to community colleges, General College offered two-year degrees. Intended for students not likely to complete a four-year course of study. University College was created for students whose academic interests spanned two or more colleges or whose needs could not be served by existing colleges. It provided an early example of the University's commitment to interdisciplinary study.
Other Coffman-era innovations included one of the country's first university-based radio stations (later Radio K), a new art gallery, and the first college-based residential conference center in the country (subsequently named Nolte Center). These years also saw the flowering of the careers of academic giants such as E. C. Stakman, chair of plant pathology; Owen Wangensteen, chief of surgery; Katharine Densford, director of the School of Nursing; Wallace Notestein in English history; as well as Richard Elliott, Donald Patterson, and E.G. Williamson in psychology. During Coffman's nearly two decades as president, the reputation of University of Minnesota graduate education and research increased both regionally and nationally.
Source: James Gray, The University of Minnesota: 1851–1951 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1951), 263-294.