URBANA — "Alma Otter" may have brought out the voters, but it didn't win quite enough of their votes.
In a nonbinding referendum this week, University of Illinois students voted down a proposal to make it the official symbol of the Illini by just 300 votes. The unofficial tally was 3,510 in support to 3,807 against.
Though it was created as a joke by three UI students, Alma Otter had gained traction online and was eventually placed on the ballot for the spring student election. The vote was only advisory to the administration.
"I'm a little disappointed, but hopefully this sparks conversation with the campus community," said Student Government Vice President Alice Zheng, one of the authors of the referendum.
She said the results don't necessarily mean students aren't ready for a new mascot.
"Maybe Alma Otter wasn't the one that they needed," Zheng said.
Turnout was 50 percent higher than in 2018, with a total of 8,078 votes cast, or about 17.1 percent of the 47,238 students eligible.
Last year, 5,401 people voted in the student elections, or about 11.8 percent of the 45,813 students eligible.
Vote totals varied depending on the specific office or ballot question, and the Alma Otter question drew the most interest — more than 7,300 votes. Jim Hintz, associate vice chancellor for student success and engagement, said a large number of ballot questions and candidates this year probably boosted turnout as well.
The authors of the referendum were pleased with the higher turnout and said the referendum helped move the mascot discussion from the merits of Chief Illiniwek to what a new mascot could be.
"It has pushed the conversation forward significantly," said Student Government Senator Anna Sekiguchi, another of the referendum authors. "It showed that there's significant support for the conversation in general, if you have 8,000 people talking about it, and nearly half wanted to go on with a new mascot."
The photo of a sea otter in an Illini jersey was posted on Reddit and Facebook pages in December by UI juniors Austin Lindell, John Farwick and Connor Latham, who intended it only as a joke. But it went viral — inspiring both fans and haters on social media — and a change.org petition that called on the UI to adopt it as its mascot gained hundreds of signatures.
The Illinois Student Government agreed late last month to place it on this week's ballot.
Enthusiasm for Alma Otter came mostly from students, while many alumni and Chief Illiniwek supporters were scornful.
The Chief was retired by the campus in 2007, and Alma Otter supporters said it was time for the campus to move on after 12 years without a symbol. They argued that the lack of a mascot has affected school spirit at sporting events and that the river otter — once endangered but now ubiquitous throughout Illinois — would be a fun and appropriate choice.
They also liked the connection to the beloved Alma Mater and said it was compatible with other Big Ten mascots, like the Wisconsin Badger and Minnesota Golden Gopher.
Opponents felt it wasn't tough enough or said nothing should replace the Chief. Students for Chief Illiniwek had urged a "no" vote, saying it "diminishes the honor and dignity of our university."
Alma Otter had inspired other mascot suggestions in recent days — "Krush" the bear (for the Orange Krush), a "Flying Illini" eagle, an "Illini 22" bus, or some kind of robot to commemorate the strong tech history on campus.
UI student Mike Skibski also drew up "Champ the Fighting Illini," a World War I soldier, to tie in with Memorial Stadium.
Another of the referendum authors, Student Government Chief of Staff Susan Zhou, said that if she were to rewrite it, "I would rephrase the question to be more inclusive of other ideas floating around campus."
Chancellor Robert Jones is awaiting recommendations from the Commission on Native Imagery on whether to move forward with a new mascot. He had asked the panel to recommend ways the campus can highlight the UI's native heritage and coalesce around new traditions, though he hasn't committed to a mascot. The panel is expected to issue a report by the end of the semester.
Administrators have declined comment on the various mascot proposals.
Farwick said he was pleased with the conversation he helped create.
"It shows that students want more of a fun mascot than anything," he said. "Hopefully, it makes things more positive, because the Chief conversation was negative on both sides and doesn't seem to be going anywhere."
Other election measures
— By a 4,000-vote margin, students recommended that the Office of Student Affairs increase funding for the UI Counseling Center to add staff and make it more accessible to students, with online scheduling, extended hours, advertised walk-in hours and clinicians placed in academic units. Demand has grown significantly in recent years and students have complained of scheduling difficulties.
— Students approved a $3.50-per-semester fee increase to support a tuition-aid fund for students who demonstrate financial need but don't otherwise qualify for financial aid. They also reauthorized the Student Equal Access to Learning Fee for another four years, a $5.20-per-semester fee that supplements existing financial aid for students with need.
— Students agreed to create a $1-per-semester fee to support Illinois Student Government.
— A measure calling on the university and the UI Foundation to divest from any fossil-fuel companies by 2020 was approved.
— Voters also reauthorized for another four years the $2.58-per-semester Cultural Programming Fee, which supports campus cultural houses and related programs, and the $1-per-semester Bicycle Programs and Infrastructure Fee, which pays for bike paths, bike parking and similar projects.
— Students re-elected Treyshawn Mitchell to a third term as student trustee from Urbana.