CHAMPAIGN — Chancellor Robert Jones wants to make one thing clear about the commission he appointed to flesh out suggestions from the "Critical Conversation" on Chief Illiniwek: It won't be choosing a mascot or new traditions for the University of Illinois.
"This is not a committee to name a mascot," Jones said Thursday, following the first meeting of the new Chancellor's Commission on Native Imagery: Healing and Reconciliation.
As part of its charge, the panel was asked to come up with a process for establishing new traditions to fill the void left by the Chief's departure — "which could also include a process for naming a mascot — emphasis on 'could,'" Jones said. "If we decide to go down that road, they're not going to be the ones to do it."
The UI announced Thursday that the commission will be co-chaired by Eric Jolly, president and CEO of The Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundations and a former university administrator whose father is Cherokee; and retired Caterpillar executive Stu Levenick, a UI alumnus, donor and former captain of the UI football team.
Also on the panel are former Chief Illiniwek portrayers, both official and unofficial, as well as the head of the Peoria Nation in Oklahoma, which opposes the Chief and includes descendants of the Illini Confederation. The commission also includes representatives of UI athletics, former UI trustees and BET co-founder and UI alumna Sheila Johnson, among others.
The commission was recommended by an advisory group that compiled feedback from the "Critical Conversation" events last spring. That report suggested finding a way to commemorate the Chief's long history on campus and exploring the possibility of a mascot along with other new traditions.
The chancellor's charge letter describes the commission as "an informal, ad hoc working group, to serve as an important internal advisory resource for me and my leadership team as we consider how best to formulate policies and processes at the University of Illinois."
He asked the panel to provide written recommendations on four points before the end of next semester:
— How to provide closure, healing and reconciliation for stakeholders.
— How to facilitate the establishment of new traditions.
— How to remember the history of the Chief — with a focus on both the intent and impact of the tradition.
— How to "honor and partner with the Native Nations for whom Illinois is their ancestral home."
Jones asked the commission to provide regular updates to the public on its work and solicit input from stakeholders throughout the process.
Chief 'not coming back'
"We're saying very clearly that Chief Illiniwek is not coming back," Jones said Thursday. "Whether people like Chief Illiniwek or not, he was very much a visible part of this university for a very, very long time, 89 years or so. If he's not coming back, then what do you replace that with?"
Jones has not committed to a mascot but favors developing new traditions. He cited a fan favorite at Ohio State, where the marching band spells out "Ohio" during its halftime routine and goes through an elaborate process to dot the "i."
And at Ole Miss, he said, defensive players started forming their hands in the shape of a shark fin in front of their helmets following big plays, and the "Landshark Defense" was born. The school, which stopped using its "Colonel Reb" mascot in 2003, recently unveiled a new one: "Landshark Tony."
At Illinois, Jones said, a small tradition is developing around Lovie Smith's famous beard, with fans wearing replicas to games.
But this panel won't be asked to come up with ideas, Jones said. Rather, it will take all the feedback from the "Critical Conversation" and make recommendations for how to proceed in the short and long term, "before we make decisions about what we're going to implement," Jones said.
The chancellor said the advisory panel felt that having a representative group do that was preferable to Jones trying to make those decisions "in isolation," and he agreed.
Jones said he's known Jolly more than a decade. They met when Jolly was head of the Minnesota Science Museum and Jones was at the University of Minnesota, and served on a foundation board together.
"He is probably one of the most effective people I know to help communities heal beyond traumatic or divisive situations," Jones said, adding that Jolly helped him plan the spring "Critical Conversation" event. Jolly has worked at the University of Oklahoma, University of Nebraska and Indiana State and "knows higher education quite well," he added.
Levenick brings the perspective of a student-athlete who "played football at the university during a time when the Chief was in its heyday," Jones said. "He was very helpful in helping me and others understand that perspective."
He's also helped others understand that "the Chief isn't coming back and it's time for us to move in a different direction for the benefit of the university," Jones said.
"We tried to have balance across the committee, folks with different perspectives," Jones said. "As we framed it, it's a coalition of the willing — people who are willing not to represent any particular constituency group even though they come from different constituencies, but are willing to roll up their sleeves to help the institution find a path forward without Chief Illiniwek."
"Everybody I called was gratified and humbled to participate," he said.
Jolly and several other committee members could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Kaufman weighs in
Some critics on both sides have had reservations about the outcome of the chancellor's initiative.
In an email Thursday, longtime Chief opponent Stephen Kaufman criticized Jones for not including "anyone with knowledge of the past three decades of the debate on Illiniwek and the nationwide discussion of the use of American Indian imagery in sports" and for "placating and pandering to a few."
He said "the moral equivalence given to those who would perpetuate ignorance and racism is shameful," and the effort appears to be a "charade" designed to prevent meaningful progress in the effort to end all vestiges of the Chief.
But the campus Academic Senate last month endorsed the critical conversation initiative, calling it a "good-faith effort to heal campus divisions over the issue and to seek a sustainable way forward."
Joining co-chairs Eric Jolly and Stu Levenick on the Chancellor's Commission on Native Imagery:
— Ron Bess, former Illini football player who is now CEO of Merge advertising agency in Chicago.
— John Caughlin, UI professor and head of Department of Communication.
— Omar Cruz, student who has recently portrayed Chief Illiniwek, which was officially retired in 2007.
— Ivan Dozier Sr., father of former unofficial Chief portrayer Alex Ivan Dozier and state conservationist with USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.
— Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert, UI professor and director of American Indian Studies.
— Chief Craig Harper, leader of Peoria Nation.
— Patricia Brown Holmes, Chicago attorney, alumna and former judge and UI trustee.
— Sheila Johnson, founder and CEO of Salamander Hotels & Resorts, vice chairman of Monumental Sports & Entertainment.
— Marty Kaufmann, UI senior associate athletic director, overseeing external relations and trademark licensing.
— Lauren Kirby, president of Native American Indigenous Student Organization on campus.
— Dan Maloney, last official Chief portrayer and financial adviser for Edward Jones.
— Jane Hayes Rader, former UI trustee and member of UI Foundation Board of Directors.
— Vikram Sardana, Illinois Student Government representative.
— Jamie Singson, UI alumnus, former director of Native American House and director of Illini Union.
— Commission secretary: Professor Isabel Molina-Guzman, faculty director of diversity and inclusion for College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.