Guest Commentary: What I've learned by listening

Guest Commentary: What I've learned by listening


In my four-decade career as an educator, a scientist and a university administrator, I have learned how tempting it can be to try to win an argument by imposing my opinion on those who may disagree with me.

It is far more challenging to listen to what others say and to endeavor not to prove them wrong, but to understand the foundations of their perspectives and to respect the lived experiences that have brought them to these viewpoints. Some of my proudest days and most profound moments of personal and professional growth have been found in these intersections of honest differences.

In his Feb. 1 column, News-Gazette columnist Jim Dey explained how my experiences as an African-American man who grew up in the Jim Crow days of Georgia have shaped my thinking today. In particular, he says they led me to be disdainful or dismissive of the complaints of members of our community who tell me they feel hurt or threatened by the continued presence of Chief Illiniwek.

Mr. Dey knows nothing about my experiences. If he did, he would realize that the truth is exactly the opposite. I know what it means to be an outsider in a community — whether that is by the color of your skin, where your family comes from or your educational background. I understand the frustration that comes from constantly hearing "the way it is" and "the way it should be" are exactly the same thing, even when every one of your personal experiences is screaming to the contrary.

So, when I am approached by a student who tells me she feels her culture and history are being disrespected and insulted when she watches someone dressing as Chief Illiniwek, I'm not comparing the seriousness of her experiences to my own. I'm just listening to what she has to say with the same concern, respect and attention that I believe we all owe one another.

Chief Illiniwek has been retired for a decade at this university. But his legacy today throws disruptive shadows across every aspect of our mission and divides our community. The vitality and potential of one of the nation's greatest universities are at risk. Symbols and mascots are meant to bring communities together. This one is tearing us apart. And we're not going to get through this by assigning blame to one side or the other, or by trying to do math that pretends to simplify this into a "majority versus minority" issue.

As a university community, we certainly will not and do not have to agree with one another. We don't even have to like each other very much. But the privilege that comes with living in a community brings an obligation to at least try to understand one another. And when we start doubting, or worse, attacking the validity of the lived experiences of those with whom we disagree, we're not really engaging in debate or discussion any longer. We're just trying to impose our opinions on others in the easiest and most cowardly way.

I'm not looking to restrict anyone's freedom of expression or speech. I recognize this issue is complex. It is intensely personal to many, and it brings out strong feelings and strong words. As chancellor, it is my responsibility to lead this university and to find a path that recognizes the history of Chief Illiniwek while building our future without it at Illinois.

The next time Mr. Dey chooses to write about what I learned as a black man growing up in the South, here are a few things for him to think about. I learned the value of listening first. I came to understand how difficult it can be when you realize it's time to change an opinion you've championed. And I've watched the way the world can change when women and men have the courage to speak and act when they see a chance to transform "the way it is" into the "way it should be."

That is what we do at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Robert J. Jones is the chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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wayward wrote on February 04, 2018 at 10:02 am

"The next time Mr. Dey chooses to write about what I learned as a black man growing up in the South, here are a few things for him to think about..."

Excellent smackdown. wrote on February 04, 2018 at 1:02 pm



Did  you do a lot of listening at the U of Albany before you made your statement condemming the actions of the white fraternity members?  Who did you listen to before you made that statement?  The police>?  The transit district that had the video?  Whom did you listen to?    Did you apologize to the students afterwords when you were proven wrong?  Who did you listen to then?  I get that you are here to eliminate the Chief from the history books,. to remove the 3 -1 from the musical halftime... I get that.  Sadly there is no common ground here.   In the mean time, show us the video  that your esteemed ;professor shot in the bathroom.

Illiniwek222 wrote on February 06, 2018 at 11:02 am

Bobby wants you to forget Albany...nothing to see here.

BruckJr wrote on February 04, 2018 at 7:02 pm

Who did Jones listen to?  Isn't it obvious?  He listened to Asha Burwell.

Beebalm wrote on February 04, 2018 at 8:02 pm

I can guess what Dey was listening to, and it isn't the angels of our better nature.

I am shocked by the willingness of numerous local commentators to dehumanize those that do the hard work of trying to hold a mirror up to our behaviour to one another and to help us face our prejudices, be they inherited or intertwined with active animus.

They would be wise to listen to the proscription against throwing stones.



CommonSenseless wrote on February 05, 2018 at 8:02 am

"Symbols and mascots are meant to bring communities together. This one is tearing us apart. "


Correction: the removal of this one is tearing us apart.

dw wrote on February 05, 2018 at 3:02 pm

Correction:  the removal is complete.  However the lack of a replacement is tearing us apart, leading to private individuals attempting to continue a tradition the University has terminated.  It's time for leadership to select a new symbol/mascot and move on.  Until there is a replacement, the gap will continue to be filled.

Since this applies to an institution of research & higher learning, it's apropos to do some research & literature review of others who may've had similar problems:

In order to best understand the path the University of illinois must take to end this conflict it is illuminating to study the history of Missisippi's flagship state university, Ole Miss and their replacement of the Confederate Battle flag and all flags that contain it from campus, including the state flag of mississsippi.  Let me reiterate:  the flagship public institution of higher learning took down their own state flag.  Most importantly, after they removed Colonel Reb -- the slave-owning plantation owner -- they replaced him with Rebel Bear.

Let's put this tradition in perspective with our own: Ole Miss lost the entire class of 1861 to the Civil War.  There is a confederate cemetery on the University grounds.  Many of their post- Civil War classes were comprised of souther vets from the Civil War.  

In contrast, the University of Illinois' link to Native American imagery as a tradition is weak:  there are no Native American reservations in Illinois.  There are no Native American cemeteries on campus.  We do not have a strong history of native american enrollment.

And yet their leadership was able to see that clinging to this tradition was impeding their path forward.

Is there a continuing Col Reb presence on campus?  Of course.  And online as well.  But it, like the folks who support it, are dying out while the new younger generation sport Rebel Bear...

CommonSenseless wrote on February 06, 2018 at 9:02 am

Let me get this straight.  The PC police have ginned up enough mental illness to enact a fuzzy bear rendition of revisionist history at another school, so we should roll over and allow it to happen here?  Not going to happen. 

Dread Pirate DNT wrote on February 06, 2018 at 10:02 am
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You're right, not everyone is rolling over. Just like the KKK, Nazis and a myriad of other conservative hate groups/'traditions' there will unfortunately be a small minority of people clinging on to their old racist mascot. Fortunately 99% of these people are 65+ years old and will be dead soon so we won't have to read their obnoxious thinly veiled or sometimes not even veiled racism anymore. Looking at you, Jim Dey.

Illiniwek222 wrote on February 06, 2018 at 11:02 am

The student body must be composed of lots of young looking geriatrics as I see a great deal of Illiniwek attire on campus. I invite you to take a stroll on campus.

KlaatuSansGort wrote on February 05, 2018 at 1:02 pm

It is perhaps sad that this thoughtful offering by the chancellor of the UIUC was apparently offered to readers with reference only to his name, instead of his official title.

It might in all events be further suggested that the chancellor well intended to and did indeed write that there is something that has long objectively justified the University of Illinois in first abiding the position and directives of the NCAA:

"Chief Illini," whether considered a "mascot" or a "symbol," was never "racist" by any informed definition.

Instead, "Chief Illini" was and would ever be a Cultural Stereotype:

An "Indian" wearing a feathered headdress; performing a "dance" to "music" that is "traditional."

All Right.

Right; just as "Asians can't drive," "Blacks can't swim," and "Whites can't jump."

Look up the definition of "racist" in any objective dictionary and please consider that "The Chief" was never such.

Yet while you have a dictionary either in or at hand, look up the term "University" and again consider an "Indian" wearing a feathered headdress; performing a "dance" to "music" that is "traditional."

Is that REALLY the best any University can do? wrote on February 05, 2018 at 8:02 pm

When Bob sends out emails to the U of staff he calls himself Bob.   I did not realize that he was offended or are you offended for him.  He make over 300k a year....He is a state and other taxpayers employee.....3 in 1?   Doesnt that music pre date the Chief there SJW?   What issue other than the Chief is bigger on campus?   None.   He needs to make a decision  and move on.....Like the Cleveland MLB team.