CHICAGO — In response to a proposal from former Chief Illiniwek portrayers to create a "reinvented Chief tradition" for the Urbana campus, University of Illinois President Bob Easter said he had concerns about anything that would distract the university from other, more critical issues facing higher education.
Easter, who has been a dean, department head, faculty member and graduate student at the Urbana campus for four decades prior to becoming president, said he knows how divisive the issue of Chief Illiniwek has been for the campus.
"My overarching concern is we're dealing with some very difficult issues in higher education, and anything that distracts from our ability to focus on those critical issues is a challenge from our standpoint," he told The News-Gazette on Wednesday after a board of trustees meeting. "We're in an era of our university where we really need to pull together to create our future as an institution of higher education. That's my focus," Easter said.
Easter pointed out that it is up to the campuses to decide whether or not they choose to have a "representation." He said he views his role as president as someone who interacts between the campus and the board of trustees.
Urbana Chancellor Phyllis Wise, who was attending a conference Wednesday and not at the meeting in Chicago, does not support the return of the Chief to any university-sponsored event. She has said the Chief tradition is part of the campus's past, not its future.
After being turned down by Wise earlier this spring, the group of former portrayers decided to take their case to the UI Board of Trustees. During the public comment session of Wednesday's board meeting, Rick Legue, a UI graduate who portrayed Chief Illiniwek in 1966 and 1967, summarized his group's proposal.
"Picture a Native American, a Peoria (Tribe of Oklahoma) student, in Peoria regalia, making a walk-on appearance during the Three-in-One, all by the design of and in collaboration with the Peoria Tribe," he said.
The "reinvented" Chief Illiniwek tradition, according to Legue, is for twice-a-year, on-field appearances on a two-year trial basis. There would be no dancing but "a stationary presence" during the "Hail to the Orange song" with the Marching Illini. The Chief's appearances would be tied to fundraising activity for the Peoria tribe, the UI and Native American organizations, according to the proposal.
"Our intent is to restore the good will at the university and reunite the Illini family," Legue said.
The UI Board of Trustees officially voted in March 2007 to end Chief Illiniwek's dance and the use of the Chief or any Native American imagery for the university or its athletic programs. The NCAA had previously prohibited the UI from hosting postseason tournaments as long as it used Native American imagery. When they voted to end the tradition, trustees delegated the Urbana campus chancellor to "manage the final disposition" of the matter.
James Montgomery, the only current UI trustee who was on the board when it voted to end the tradition back in 2007, said he did not support the group's proposal.
"The bottom line is that the board made, in my judgment, a good judgment in making the decision to eliminate the Chief for a number of reasons. One, to the extent that it might be viewed as insulting to folks of Indian descent and because it impairs our relationship with the NCAA," Montgomery said.
UI trustee Dr. Tim Koritz, who graduated from the UI in 1978, said he has "nothing but good memories" of Chief Illiniwek. However, he wasn't sure if consideration of the proposal was even a board issue.
"It's not clear in my mind what's best for the university," he said, adding that he thought both Legue and UI Professor Joyce Tolliver, who spoke out against bringing back any form of the Chief, raised valid points. In her remarks, Tolliver urged the board to consider the "angry debate" that occurred on campus for years and how it consumed the campus and community.
"As you weigh the request of one interest group against the finality of that 2007 board decision, I ask that you, members of the current board, keep in mind the well-being of every segment of our university community. A university symbol should be a unifying thing. There's no way the Chief can ever be anything but divisive," Tolliver said.
Tolliver said she was speaking on behalf of herself and colleague Nick Burbules, not the entire faculty or Urbana's Academic Senate. Both Tolliver and Burbules are part of the Senate Executive Committee, a group of leaders from the senate. That group last week hurriedly passed a resolution that reinforced previous statements by the senate that called on the tradition to be retired. The nonbinding resolution, drawn up in response to the former Chiefs' proposal, expressed full support for Wise's statements that Chief Illiniwek is a part of the school's past, not its future.
The university should have some kind of tradition, "something people can be proud of," but it's not the board's responsibility to decide what it should be, said UI trustee and UI graduate Patricia Brown Holmes. She suggested that the campus organize focus groups at which students and faculty can explore options and ideas for a new tradition. "Let's find a mascot that everybody can agree on, a tradition everyone can agree on, a way to move forward. That's what I'd love to see: I want to see us move forward," she said.