Co-chairman of Chief panel has 'cautious optimism' after first meeting

Co-chairman of Chief panel has 'cautious optimism' after first meeting

CHAMPAIGN — Eric Jolly has experience helping communities through traumatic events, from Northern Ireland’s Troubles to the aftermath of 9/11.

Now, he hopes to apply those reconciliation efforts to the intractable issue of Chief Illiniwek as co-chairman of Chancellor Robert Jones’ new Commission on Native Imagery.

Jolly, a cognitive psychologist and former university administrator, is president and CEO of the nonprofit Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundations.

In an interview, Jolly said he “won’t pretend to be an expert in a community I don’t live in.” But he said his co-chair, former Illini football player and Caterpillar executive Stu Levenick, a longtime UI donor, has a strong knowledge of the university and is well-connected in the alumni community.

And Jolly has been involved in Jones’ “Critical Conversation” initiative on the Chief since last spring. It was clear from that process that there was a “disconnect” by certain factions of the Chief debate about their intent and how it’s perceived by others, he said.

“What I understand is the real passion and passionate interest in not being misunderstood for what they hope their expression of spirit meant to others,” he said.

That’s where Jolly started the discussion during the commission’s first meeting Thursday in Chicago — emphasizing the need to build on shared values of the university and its “undeniable asset of community and alumni spirit” and find a way to honor the past while “planning a future where everyone can channel their love of the school.”

Members also reviewed a model for community change designed to help people get through difficult conversations and build understanding, he said.

“There is no doubt that there was great passion in that room. But there was also great compassion in that room,” he said.

The commission plans to gather input online from the broader community on specific aspects of the issue, then consider how the university can plant the seeds for a new “rallying point” for school spirit, Jolly said. The next meeting will likely be in late January or early February, with the goal of finishing its work before the end of the academic year.

Jolly said he felt a sense of “cautious optimism” as commission members talked about their hopes for the process. He attributes that to two factors: the chancellor’s clear position that the Chief isn’t coming back but that the campus has to somehow commemorate its history on campus; and the realization that “we are laying out a pathway forward” without destroying the past.

“I want to be very clear: Our goal is not a sense of closing something with an end. We want to shift the momentum,” he said. “There was a general feeling that the abrupt nature by which the NCAA ended the Chief’s imagery didn’t work well for very many people, and so these are not things which are forever closed or forever settled. It’s a pathway to reconciliation and understanding, not a solution that we can get up from the table and say, ‘That’s the last time we talk about this.’

“We’ll come back to it. But we’ll come back to it with a different understanding, a historical context, and an appreciation for the value of everyone who feels impacted by this.”

Maloney: 'Open mind'

Two commission members with opposing views on the Chief shared his sense of cautious optimism.

Financial planner Dan Maloney, the last official Chief portrayer, is encouraged that “people are sitting down at the table and willingly discussing things that frankly they should have started discussing 20 or 30 years ago, when some of these issues were raised.”

Maloney said there will be Chief opponents who look with suspicion on the effort when they see his name or other pro-Chief advocates on the commission, and the same will be true for Chief supporters who see critics on the panel.

“But I’m optimistic that we’ll find some form of common ground,” he said. “What that looks like, I have no clue whatsoever. I don’t think anybody does.”

That could be a strength, he said.

“If everybody’s going in with no expectations and an open mind, that’s where true cooperation occurs,” Maloney said.

Gilbert: 'Wait and see'

Professor Matthew Gilbert, director of American Indian Studies on campus, credited Jones’ efforts to move the campus and the community beyond the divisive issue.

“I arrived at the University of Illinois in 2006, and I’ve seen this issue kind of come and go in various different waves and intensities,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like this here at the U of I, in regards to the Chief issue. I want to give Chancellor Jones and his administration the space to see what happens next.

“I can imagine that there are people who are not optimistic about this, maybe even pessimistic or cynical about a commission like this. I understand that,” Gilbert said. “At the same time, I want people to wait and see how all of this develops over the next several weeks or months.

“What’s the alternative? To be mad? To continue to be angry and upset, to continue to have division? People have very, very strong feelings about this, but at least with this commission ... there is some possibility, maybe even some hope, that we can move beyond this issue,” he said.

Gilbert said the committee’s makeup reflects the chancellor’s desire to include people who “would be able to come to the table and have an open and honest discussion, and wouldn’t act by impulse but would give this topic and the complexities around it very thoughtful consideration.”

Jolly: Long track record

Jolly, whose father is Cherokee, earned his Ph.D. from the University of Oklahoma and taught at Eastern New Mexico University and Indiana State before becoming an assistant dean at the University of Rhode Island. He later was assistant chancellor at the University of Nebraska, where he founded the National Institute for Affirmative Action and Diversity.

He then worked as a senior scientist and vice president at the Education Development Center in Massachusetts before serving as director of the Science Museum of Minnesota for 11 years, where he was honored for efforts to bring science to underrepresented communities.

While at the Education Development Center, Jolly led a team that designed a social-studies curriculum, “Beyond Blame,” after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which was later adopted in 21 states and nine countries worldwide. The authors were concerned that the attacks had created a hostile climate for Arab-Americans, like that facing Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor.

The three lessons were designed to help students come to grips with the trauma and understand injustice and misplaced blame, he said.

Jolly said he also worked with the State Department and leaders in Northern Ireland on a series of programs that led to the reopening of a “peace gate” separating two schools for Protestants and Catholics there.