Student Court Considers Challenge to Chief Illiniwek Survey
By Sean Powers
On Wednesday, the student Moot Court at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign will hear oral arguments in a case related to the U of I’s former symbol, Chief Illiniwek.
The court will look at whether a recent survey to choose a new symbol for the University violates student government rules. The complaint against the survey is part of efforts to bring the Chief back as the University’s official symbol, but that is unlikely to happen.
It has been six years since the University of Illinois retired Chief Illiniwek, a U of I symbol going back more than 80 years. Thousands of fans showed up to see the Chief’s final performance during the half time show at a 2007 Michigan-Illinois game.
“He all spirit now,” a sports announcer said during that game. “He’s gone as far as his ability to come out there in person, but his spirit will live on for a long time.
Over the years, criticism had grown that the Chief was offensive to Native Americans, and his appearances were ended by the University’s Board of Trustees to avoid NCAA sanctions.
Six years later, supporters are not letting the Chief go.
Just last week, student elections included a referendum asking students if they support Chief Illiniwek as the official symbol of the University.
Jimmy Sullivan voted ‘yes,’ but he maintains any comeback must address concerns about the Chief being offensive.
“My dad went here. My grandpa went here. I went here,” Sullivan said. “I just think it’s a great tradition to have at our university, and it’s something that the students and alumni all really like.”
But Larry Harris voted ‘no,’ saying he is fine with things the way they are right now.
“If you do go to any of the sporting events, you will see there is a sea of orange everywhere,” Harris said. “So, I think we’re doing pretty fine. If the students do opt to adopt another mascot, I’m perfectly fine with that, too. Just not the Chief.”
Harris describes the Chief as a mascot, but even that word used to refer to the Chief is a source of major debate. Supporters prefer to call the Chief a symbol.
“A mascot is some guy in a giant headed suit that runs around and throws t-shirts into the crowd, and that was never what the chief was here,” said U of I graduate student Josh Good.
“We’re all talking about the same thing,” said U of I alum Tom Ferrarell. “So, when I say mascot or I say symbol, I’m thinking of like the physical representation of the symbol or the logo.”
Both Josh Good and Tom Ferrarell have been helping lead the charge on both sides of the Chief Illiniwek debate.
Tom Ferrarell is the co-founder of the group Campus Spirit Revival, which backs finding a replacement for the Chief. Ferrarell said he believe the last few years of not having anything in the Chief’s place has created too much instability.
“Fighting for the chief is something that isn’t going to happen,” Ferrarell said. “So, we’re trying to come from the angle of ‘ok, if we can’t have the chief, then what can we give the students then?”’
Campus Spirit Revival supported a design survey which went out to students in January. It showed an array of student creations, such as a scarecrow, a fire chief, a solider, and a buffalo; all of which could serve as a replacement for the Chief.
Roughly 2,000 students responded, but results were withheld after Josh Good, who is also a student senator, challenged the survey. He said it conflicted with a 2008 student referendum in which nearly 80 percent of students voted in favor of re-instating the Chief as the official symbol.
Good is the co-founder of Stop Campus Spirit Revival, a pro-Chief Illiniwek group, which was formed in response to the mascot design survey.
“There hasn’t been a referenda that has been passed since then or any major survey to show that the students want a new mascot, “Good said. “I don’t believe that there should just be a carte blanche it’s ok to go about finding a new mascot before we kind of make sure that that’s what the students of this university want.”
A student court will rule whether Good’s concerns are justified. If the court sides with him, then results from the design survey will not be released.
David Pileski is a student trustee for the Urbana campus, and he proposed the design survey last school year when he was student body president.
“I don’t think I’ll see it in the next five years personally that we’ll have a new mascot, but I think there’s a need,” Pileski said. “I think that’s what this survey and what this dialogue was really about. How do we start to move forward and let’s map out what that road looks like, and it’s something that eventually we’ll heal and we’ll move forward on.”
Meanwhile, results from Josh Good’s pro-chief referedum from last week will not be released until the student court makes its final decision. He said roughly 12,000 students voted, and he is confident that like in 2008, there will be strong support for the Chief.
However, during a recent interview on WILL’s Focus program, Urbana Chancellor Phyllis Wise made it clear that Chief Illiniwek is not coming back
“I think we want very much to figure out ways to be able to go forward in a way that embraces the future and includes everyone, and to whatever extent that we continue to look backwards,” Wise said. “I think it distracts us from being able to deal with the competition of the future that we must face if we’re going to be an excellent University.”
For now, Pileski said feelings about the Chief should not be a cause of division among students.
“You’re almost considered less of a proud University of Illinois community member if you don’t support the Chief,” he said. “Regardless of our different positions, we all care about the University dearly, and to almost say that certain individuals don’t deserve to be called an Illini or that they don’t deserve to be at the University because they don’t agree with your position on this matter is just wrong."