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URBANA — Nine years after the retirement of Chief Illiniwek, the University of Illinois is launching a process to choose a "first-ever" athletic mascot.
Interim Chancellor Barbara Wilson announced her decision at the campus Academic Senate meeting on Monday.
Wilson endorsed the recommendation from an Illinois Student Senate ad hoc committee that recently urged the campus to move forward with a mascot. She met with the group on Friday.
She plans to form a committee of 10 to 12 people that will draw up a process and a timeline. It will include representatives from all the stakeholders involved — students, faculty, staff, alumni and community members.
Wilson, who had already signaled her support for the student effort, said last week that any new mascot would embody the values and traditions of the campus.
The Ad Hoc Committee on the Exploration of a University Mascot, which took public input at meetings and via email, concluded that while student and alumni opinions remain divided, a mascot would be an overall benefit for the campus.
The committee said students don’t have anything tangible to rally around at athletic events, and that the Chief’s retirement left a "void."
The UI retired Chief Illiniwek, which it referred to as a "symbol," in 2007 under pressure from the NCAA and others who argued that it was racist.
The student panel also said a mascot could provide considerable marketing and branding appeal, boost school spirit, appeal to younger students and fans, and help combat continued use of offensive images of the Chief, especially during the Unofficial St. Patrick’s Day drinking holiday.
The committee emphasized the effort would not involve changing the "Fighting Illini" nickname or the "Three-in-One" music.
In public input to the student committee, faculty and staff members expressed strong support for the idea of moving ahead with a mascot. They argued the use of Native American imagery can affirm negative stereotypes; that the timing is good, with the UI’s upcoming sesquicentennial; and that a mascot could be a "unifying emblem" for the campus, the report said.
Overall student testimony was split, but more were in favor.
By contrast, community members and alumni were strongly opposed, though some alumni who liked the Chief still wanted to "move on." Many community members were unhappy with how the Chief was retired and said pro-Chief students and community members were under-represented.
Members of the Student Athletic Advisory Committee, which has two athletes from each Division I team, unanimously supported the idea — though one expressed concern that a mascot not "trivialize" the UI’s image, the report said.
Students who favored a mascot suggested that, without one, Chief imagery would be perpetuated, prolonging the pain expressed by those who are Native American.
Opponents said they didn’t believe the university needed a new mascot, and fans would rather not have one. Given the strong feelings of Chief supporters and proponents, one student said that having no mascot was "the closest to a middle ground that we will find," and some felt a mascot would actually worsen tensions.
Students also argued that the effort ignored past student initiatives, including a 2013 referendum on a campus mascot in which students voted for "no change."
The committee said it’s also important, as part of the process, for the campus to officially recognize the Chief as an important part of the UI’s history and traditions.
Further education and discussion of the Chief and related issues is also essential, especially from Native Americans who are "too often silenced and stereotyped," the report said.