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NSU mascot name change will build bonds of trust

In the days since I announced that Northeastern State University would begin the process of changing our Redmen nickname, I have heard from hundreds of interested students, alumni and friends of the university. As you can imagine, the responses have run the gamut of emotions. I have been thanked, congratulated, chastised and cursed. These responses were not unexpected or unanticipated; in fact, they are the normal human responses to social change. And now, after listening to your comments and reading your messages for nearly six weeks, I believe it is important for me to respond to what I have heard. I hope you will read this message with an open mind, willing to consider the impact this decision has on the future of our university and the social development of everyone touched by the university.

As the president of NSU, I have been given an awesome responsibility by the governor of Oklahoma; the Oklahoma Legislature; the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education; and our governing board, the Regional University System of Oklahoma Board of Regents. My job is to assure the academic integrity, social responsibility, long-term reputation and viability of our great university. In this role, I have a duty to protect “for the students, faculty, staff and alumni of the university” the integrity and value of an NSU degree. At times, this obligation requires that I make some very, very difficult decisions that may prove unpopular with many people. This is certainly the case with the decision to change the Redmen nickname at NSU.

I truly understand the significant emotional attachment many of you have to this long-used university nickname, and I do not take lightly the impact this change will have on your connection to NSU. However, awakening our social conscience is never easy and often requires a tremendous amount of personal introspection, growth and development, and I believe it has always been the goal and objective of America’s higher education institutions to be leaders in this arena.

Many of us can still remember the social, political and cultural upheaval associated with the integration of our public schools and the agonizing scenes of our National Guard protecting James Meredith from the angry mobs who attempted to stop him from becoming the first black to enroll at Ole Miss. Today, these scenes would be appalling to Americans of every ethnicity, and are only used here to recall an era that saw our society come to understand the devastating impact of intolerance, bigotry and prejudice. During this time of social examination and development, America’s colleges and universities were a driving force for social change and provided the education that allowed us, as a country, to take great strides forward and improve the future for all Americans.

Now we are faced with the realization that Native American images and nicknames used as college and university mascots are insensitive, disrespectful and offensive to American Indians. This reality has been emerging, even at NSU, over the past 30 years as American Indian leaders and organizations have consistently voiced their opposition to these mascots and team names. During this time, the university has gradually moved away from representing the Redmen name with American Indian caricatures and symbols. We have erased or eliminated university logos, sideline mascots and crowd cheers such as the “tomahawk chop,” which we have determined to be disrespectful and offensive to the American Indian culture that has been so important in the history and development of our university.

I believe the time has now come for our university to end the use of our American Indian nickname. As an institution sharing a community with the Cherokee Nation and with a student population that is nearly 30 percent American Indian, we know all too well the economic, health care and educational challenges that face many American Indians, and we must be committed to the dialogue and education that will end these inequities. We should no longer be using names and symbols that encourage the biases and prejudices that can have a negative effect on contemporary American Indian people. As a university, we are a community that embraces diversity, and we are dedicated to educating our students for success in a global economy, which requires the understanding and knowledge necessary to interact civilly with people from different cultures.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the American Psychological Association and the National Collegiate Athletic Association are just three examples of the numerous organizations and individuals who have encouraged us to review our use of the Redmen name and reflect on our social responsibility based on the knowledge and understanding available today.

Our NSU campuses throughout northeastern Oklahoma are designed to be places where we come to learn in a variety of situations. They are places where we encourage civil discourse to help promote a more civil society. They are places where we learn to keep pace with our ever-changing world.

As a society, we must use our commonalities to come together, because it is only when we come together that we begin to build the bonds of understanding, trust and empathy that break down the barriers to the unity we all so desperately need. I believe there is no better place for this type of discussion than the university campus, and I welcome your thoughts and ideas on the subject.

Over the next four months, you will have the opportunity to participate in the selection and development of NSU’s new nickname and mascot. I hope you will become engaged in the process and help us create a new identity that will generate pride within our NSU family and respect across our nation.

<i>Larry Williams, Ph.D., is president of Northeastern State University.