Chancellor: Boone issue “closed”; mascot “polarizing”
In the midst of final exams, and on the eve of perhaps the most important weekend in the history of Denver men’s basketball (to say nothing of the hockey playoffs), DU Chancellor Robert Coombe sent an e-mail to the university community earlier today addressing the ongoing controversy surrounding the university’s unofficial mascot, Denver Boone. It was, in a sense, a follow-up to Chancellor Coombe’s 2008 e-mail on the same topic.
In today’s e-mail, Coombe says he is writing “in the hope of adding some clarity to this discussion, in particular regarding the University’s position on the matter.” He then proceeds to address and reiterate various facts that have already been discussed here on the blog. In that sense, the e-mail doesn’t really make any news. It does reaffirm that the “task force” created to find a new mascot “will not be evaluating support for Boone, as that matter is closed; rather, it will be looking toward a new mascot that everyone can get behind and embrace.”
As with each and every statement I have seen from Boone opponents, including Coombe’s 2008 communique, this latest e-mail does not actually attempt to explain WHY Boone is offensive or unacceptable as a mascot. Instead, the e-mail simply asserts that Boone does not “reflect the growing diversity of the DU community,” whatever that means; further asserts that “many women, persons of color, international students and faculty members [find it] difficult to relate to [Boone] as defining the pioneering spirit,” without explaining why that is so; and finally asserts that Boone is a “polarizing figure,” without making any effort to explore whether there is an objectively reasonable basis for the objections to Boone that underlie the “polarization.”
I assume that Chancellor Coombe, as a distinguished academic, understands the difference between explanation and assertion, so I assume that the decision to assert, and not even attempt to explain, is a conscious choice. I confess I am somewhat baffled by the choice, but that is the choice he has consistently made, as have other Boone opponents, from what I’ve seen. They really seem to think Boone’s supporters, as well as third parties with no dog in the fight (like me), don’t need to understand why he’s offensive. They just need to accept it and move on. It’s like a parent talking to a small child: do it because I said so.
As I’ve said before, I remain genuinely willing to be convinced that there is a reasonable basis to oppose Boone. I just haven’t heard it yet. As an outsider to the DU community whose only link to this issue is the fact that I root for the basketball team, I don’t have some deep personal connection to the decades of tradition that Boone represents. If he’s genuinely offensive, if there’s an objectively reasonable basis to oppose him, then yeah, I would support getting rid of him. But I am certainly inclined to support him unless someone actually explains why he should be eliminated. Again:
Members of majority groups shouldn’t automatically scoff at minority groups’ concerns and say they’re just being oversensitive, because there are times when their concerns are very legitimate. … [T]here certainly ARE cases where “tradition” must give way to a concern for being respectful of particular groups. …
The elimination of the mascot at my mother’s alma mater, the University of Illinois, comes to mind. My mom had a lot of fond memories of Chief Illiniwek, but she also ultimately came to recognize that, reluctantly, yes, he had to go. The reasons for that made sense.
But with Boone, it’s far less self-evident WHY he’s offensive (particularly if his name were to be changed). Again, MAYBE HE IS offensive, but you can’t just *assert* that without explaining why, or say “he doesn’t reflect DU’s diversity and the true Pioneer spirit” (which is a meaningless statement without elaboration — mascots aren’t supposed to be mirrors held up to a student body, so this “diversity” argument just sounds like ivory-tower P.C. mumbo-jumbo to anyone outside the bubble).
I really don’t want to get bogged down with this issue tonight. I’ve got more pressing things to think and tweet and blog about, like the WAC quarterfinals and Denver’s game against Texas State tomorrow. But for the record, after the jump, I have published several questions that I’ve e-mailed, over the last couple of weeks, to student government president Sam Estenson, who played a key role in the recent anti-Boone bill, and also to Jozer Guerrero, a prominent Boone opponent who commented on a recent thread. I haven’t gotten any answers yet, but perhaps someone in this thread will be able to answer the questions. I’m all ears.
Chancellor Coombe’s full e-mail is also after the jump.
P.S. Oh, and new readers… this isn’t really a blog about Boone, even though that’s been a hot topic lately. It’s a blog about the Denver men’s basketball team. Please bookmark the Mile High Mids homepage, “like” Mile High Mids on Facebook, follow @MileHighMids on Twitter, and keep coming back as the Pios vie for NCAA glory!
Okay, now for the promised “after the jump” stuff…
(For what it’s worth, Guerrero hasn’t yet responded to my e-mail. Estenson, after initially promising to answer my questions, eventually deferred to Kim DeVigil, Senior Director of Communications for the University, saying “all statements pertaining to official stance on such subjects must go through their office and therefore I leave this in their capable hands.” I haven’t yet attempted to get a comment from Ms. DeVigil’s office; I’ve been busy, and also, I was frankly more interested in what the on-the-ground advocates of the anti-Boone position have to say, not so much in an official statement from the university’s P.R. department.)
Anyway, the questions:
1. What exactly is it about Boone that’s offensive, and in what way? Is it his name, and the association with Daniel Boone? Is it something about the image (and if so, what specifically about the image is offensive)? Or is it the whole concept of a Western Pioneer circa the 1800s being used as the university’s mascot? In other words, even if Boone looked different and/or had a different name, would he still be offensive so long he was a “pioneer” from that era? If so, why? I’d really like to dig into this—these are honest questions, and I’m not trying to be antagonistic in asking them; I just want to understand your position better, as I personally don’t understand (yet) what specifically about Boone is considered offensive. I understand why, for instance, the Tomahawk chop or Chief Illiniwek or the “Fighting Sioux” are considered offensive, but I’m confused about why, specifically, Boone is considered offensive. Can you help me understand your stance in this regard?
2. If the problem is Boone’s name, could it be solved by changing his name to “Pioneer Pete” or something similar, but keeping the costume as-is? If not, why not?
3. If the problem is something related to Boone’s image, could changes be made to the image (while maintaining Boone as a Western “Pioneer”) which would make the image more acceptable and less offensive? If not, why not?
4. If the problem is the whole concept of having a Western “Pioneer” as a mascot … do you believe Denver should ultimately change its school nickname to something other than the “Pioneers”? Is this the first step toward that endgame? Or, if “Pioneers” is fine, even while Boone is offensive….why? What’s the difference?
5. Estenson told the Clarion, “There is a large number of students in the DU community who don’t understand the history of Boone. The idea is that Native American history is being marginalized. … I genuinely believe that if students understood imagery behind Boone, they would not continue to use him” Assuming you agree with that statement, can you elaborate on what is meant by the “history of Boone” and the “imagery behind Boone”? My understanding is that Boone was, indeed, “drawn by Disney”—is that incorrect? What aspect of the “history of Boone” is offensive? Is it simply the association with Daniel Boone, or something else (or in addition)? What aspect of the “imagery behind Boone” would students reject if they “understood” it? And in what way is “Native American history being marginalized”? Again, I don’t mean to be antagonistic or confrontational, I just want to understand better.
6. I have often seen expressed, in various online mediums and elsewhere, sentiments along the lines of: Boone offends some members of our community, and thus, he is divisive and cannot be a good mascot for DU. This is also basically what Julia Bramante said, and a similar sentiment appears in Chancellor Coombe’s statement. Invariably, the response from pro-Boone folks is that some people are too easily offended, and the fact that a small group is offended isn’t enough reason, by itself, to make a change. How do you respond to this? Do you agree that Boone opponents “don’t need to understand it’s offensive or why there is so much need to change,” but should support change “out of love your DU peers” if they merely “can understand that people are deeply hurt by it”?(In the interest of full disclosure, I will candidly say that, while I personally believe genuinely offensive mascots—like Illinois’ old Chief Illiniwek, for instance—should be banned notwithstanding cries of “tradition,” I do not believe that “some people are offended, so we have to make a change” is a good enough reason, without more, to ban a mascot or tradition. I believe you have to look at whether there is an objectively reasonable basis for people to be offended, based on the facts, and not just automatically follow the wishes of whatever group is offended by something. I’m not sure which side of the line Boone falls on, but that’s my overall take on how this sort of decision ought to be made. I’m curious if you agree or disagree.)7. A commenter on Facebook wrote the following, which I thought was interesting, and I’m curious what you think. “I can understand dropping Native American nicknames and mascots out of respect for the minority, if those cultures feel denigrated. But dropping Pioneers would be a whole new level of political correctness, where the majority would drop its name. Can you see Oklahoma dropping Sooners, Wyoming dropping the Cowboys or Texas Tech dropping the Red Raiders if minority factions on their campuses were unhappy?” Thoughts?
Those are my questions. Here is Chancellor Coombe’s e-mail, which, as you’ll see, doesn’t answer any of them:
March 13, 2013
Dear Members of the DU Community:
All of us at DU are committed to inclusive excellence in everything that we do, as it is a major goal for the University as a whole. It’s important that we all support that goal in our actions, in our words, and in the images we associate with our community. Over the last few weeks there has been considerable controversy surrounding the “Denver Boone” figure that was our mascot some years ago. I am writing to you today in the hope of adding some clarity to this discussion, in particular regarding the University’s position on the matter.
As you may know, “Boone” has not been the mascot of the University since 1998, and we currently do not have an official mascot. An effort to resurrect Boone was mounted by student and alumni groups in 2008, and this led to the assembly of a University committee to gather opinion from different sectors and consider the matter at length. It quickly became clear that Boone was a polarizing figure that did not reflect the growing diversity of the DU community, but rather was an image that many women, persons of color, international students and faculty members found difficult to relate to as defining the pioneering spirit. Consequently I decided at that time that Boone would not be our official mascot. The current Boone figure that is seen at athletic events is in keeping with language in a letter that I sent to the community in 2008 that allows students and alumni groups to use the image as a celebration of the past, to the extent they may choose. The figure is not used in any official manner by the University, nor do we provide any financial support for its use by others. The person in the Boone costume at athletic events is a ticket holder, and nothing more.
The Undergraduate Student Government has taken up this matter and formed a task force that will move forward with research into the possibilities for a new mascot, specifically one that reflects our identity as the Pioneers but also the growing diversity of our community and its inclusive and welcoming nature. The task force will not be evaluating support for Boone, as that matter is closed; rather, it will be looking toward a new mascot that everyone can get behind and embrace. The University has offered its support to the task force through its office of Marketing and Communications. USG plans to engage in this effort through spring quarter, with a recommendation to be forwarded to my office and the Board of Trustees. At its meeting in late February, USG voted to phase out funding from student activities fees used by clubs or student groups for materials bearing the Boone image, effective 30 days after the adoption of a new official mascot. This is a great move forward.
I believe that the action by USG provides a tremendous opportunity to accelerate our progress toward inclusive excellence. As we mount a productive conversation about a new mascot, I hope our thoughts will be forward-looking and reflective of the University that we are to become, rather than the University that we were decades ago. Ten years from now, our student population will be vastly more diverse than it is now, in a way that represents tremendous intellectual potential for the institution as a whole. The real question is whether as a community we will be vastly more inclusive than we are now, with our images and icons, and our mascot, reflective of that rich diversity and inclusiveness. We should challenge ourselves to look to that future.