Editorial: The Chief problem

The University Board of Trustees should be commended for its firm stance against the NCAA’s ban of Chief Illiniwek and the Fighting Illini nickname in its Oct. 13 appeal. If nothing else, the board stood its ground and refused to submit to an arbitrary and incoherent decision from a body that is unaccountable to Illinoisans. But the trustees continue to leave the University vulnerable to undue external pressure by continuing to drag their feet on reaching a “consensus conclusion” regarding the fate of the Chief.

The content of the University’s letter of appeal to the NCAA is nothing particularly new or surprising. It reiterates that the names “Illini” and “Fighting Illini” had nothing to do with American Indians but stem from the name of the state, and that the latter was popularized during a 1921 fundraising campaign for Memorial Stadium – dedicated to University students, staff and alumni who perished in World War I. The appeal also states that the NCAA’s ruling of the Chief as a “hostile and abusive” symbol contradicts a 1995 report by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, and it goes on to describe the series of decision-making steps mangled by the NCAA.

What is surprising about the University’s appeal, however, is the unusually vigorous language and the decisive tone used in the letter. It bluntly states that the NCAA’s failure to exempt the University from the ban will damage its institutional autonomy and its “ability to participate fully and equally as a member institution in NCAA competition.”

Such rigorous defense of Univerisy’s rights as an institution should be commended. But it is unfortunate that, until now, the Board of Trustees did not take such a resolute position to protect its autonomy as a body that is accountable to the tax payers of Illinois, for it probably would have put the University in a much stronger position.

What is most troubling about the entire situation, though, is the lack of visible progress from the Board and other groups in the ongoing attempt to reach a consensus in deciding the fate of the Chief. Since the NCAA ruling, there has been no public dialogue between officials, administrators and concerned organizations, and no concrete steps have been laid out or taken. Perhaps there have been significant breakthroughs in reaching a resolution on an issue that has plagued the University for years and shrouded fundamental problems within the University that have yet to receive due attention. But nobody outside of the inner circle knows how much – or how little – the talks have advanced.

There is no doubt that the Board should stand up to the NCAA or any other private body that tries to strong-arm the University. Its allegiance lies with the people of Illinois who pay the taxes that support the University, the students who pay to attend the University and the faculty and staff who educate these students and conduct valuable research. Any decisions made about University policy should only take into account the rights of these people as well as the future of the University and the overall quality of the educational and living experiences at the Urbana-Champaign campus. But autonomy can only be touted with sound, deliberate management, and the ability and willingness to act swiftly when necessary. The Board has lacked the latter when it comes to the matter of the Chief.

So long as the conflict over the Chief remains unresolved by the board, the University will remain susceptible to threats against its ability to govern itself and leaves itself vulnerable to the perception of paralysis under fire.