Bruce's Blog

Nov. 23, 2015

Is Western dropping the Viking as our mascot?

Not that I foresee. For several reasons.

Mascots matter. Remember Benjamin Franklin’s objections to the early nation’s choice of, as he saw it, the “sharping & robbing” American Bald Eagle of “bad moral Character.”

Over the now approaching eight years I have served at Western, I have received one letter questioning our choice of mascot. Very thoughtfully reasoned and simply calling for discussion. But, one letter.

A former student body president once shared plans with me for a referendum on the matter (but then chose not to have one), and there has been an article in the most recent issue of the Western Front reporting discussion of the subject among some of our students.

Discussion is great. Consider this blog a contribution. And, as with all Bruce’s Blogs, I write in the spirit that you deserve to know my reasoning for the conclusions I reach … so that you can critically examine and improve that reasoning.

It’s also a relaxed Sunday, the Seahawks will not be on for several hours, and I am in a reflective stage of my career. Expect the occasional digression along anecdotal pathways.

First, a big “thank you” to those who have raised this question for further discussion. As I will develop, such questions tap deep emotions. Let us all commit to engaging passionately, yes, but also constructively and respectfully. Anything less is unworthy of Western.

Some of the objections to the Viking as a mascot seem to me merit discussion. Others do not. Similarly, I think some of the reasons for keeping the mascot seem worthy of discussion. Others not.

There is that sinister looking Viking image you see at athletic events and on coffee mugs in the Bookstore. That our mascot is an evil-looking character is one of the more common objections I have heard.

Here I must introduce you to a nuance that university presidents have to know: there are mascots … and then there are mascots. More specifically, there is the university’s mascot and then there also usually is the “sports logo” rendering of that mascot.

Decades ago, I was at Oregon State University and was part of the discussion of the mascot: a warm, cuddly beaver. The Athletic Program wanted a mean, vicious looking varmint to put on the side of football helmets. Hard to imagine how to make a beaver look evil but graphic artists are talented. After reviewing renderings in the corner office on the top floor of what we locally called “the power tower,” Athletics got the “sports logo” version. The university kept, of course, the warm cuddly rodent as the university’s mascot.

More recently, I led a university that had a phoenix as its mascot. Most appropriate for a young university that, in the late sixties, had arisen from what were nothing but cornfields to proudly become one of the campuses of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The rendering of the phoenix then in use was positive – arising, rebirth, and all of that – and certainly not evil looking. Our D-1 Intercollegiate Athletics program, though, wanted an aggressive version. They got it. It appeared on uniforms and the walls of competition venues but was not what graced the university’s home page.

So, when it comes to the “evilness” of the Viking version we use as a “sports logo,” here’s what I think: whatever our mascot is or might become, we will most likely have an aggressive version for use in intercollegiate athletics. So, I think this particular concern irrelevant to the specific question of what our mascot should be.

That “evil” look does spill over into a second concern, though: right or wrong, the popular image of Vikings.

Some point out, correctly, that Viking history and culture is long and distinguished by great literature, art, poetry, and inventiveness. And, after all, there are any number of historical groups, and ours prominently included, that have had some period of violent conquest, enslaving, and the like. The Vikings, so the reasoning goes, got a particularly bad and one-sided rap primarily because their victims long ago were the peoples who, centuries later, colonized New England and slanted the histories of the Vikings that have come down to us.

To the extent that it may be true that many if not most groups have histories that, however positive they may otherwise be, are blemished by records of violence and conquest, then it might follow that we should not have a mascot that has any human embodiment. That certainly is the choice made by many other universities. And, were we to change our mascot, this reasoning seems to point in the direction we would want to follow. But, is it, alone, reason sufficient to change our mascot?

I think not. But, there is more.

This brings me to the question I believe would most benefit from serious consideration: poised at the cusp of what I believe to be a multi-faceted turning point in public higher education as well as in the society and culture we both reflect and lead, does a Eurocentric and male mascot point to the future we wish to embrace? Or to the past we would move beyond? And, is this, then, an image all can identify with?

So, what are the reasons offered for retaining the mascot? There is the observation that the Viking mascot, if not widespread, is certainly not unusual among institutions ranging from high schools to the NFL. And, seemingly, without controversy. In the state immediately to the south of us and where I spent most of my career, I think of the proudly urban-focused Portland State University … Vikings.

However, I think that reasoning has only modest relevance. Our focus is Western, we must decide what is best for us.

Most forcefully arguing against the change, in my assessment, is the obvious observation that we have long had “The Vikings” as our mascot. There are enduring emotional identifications and attachments. I happen to believe that tradition and emotional affiliation strongly matter, so I believe this concern must be very seriously weighed.

So many do think of themselves as proudly Vikings. I do. What does that mean? Certainly not that I have any Viking lineage to so identify, any more that those attached to the UW or WSU must have Husky or Cougar heritage. I think the answer is that, through a long established mascot, whatever it may be, we symbolize our affection for, not the mascot, but the institution. Those attachments deeply matter to the continuing success of a university. And, as is evident elsewhere, questioning a mascot does trigger those sentiments of institutional affiliation and affection.

This I know, universities do not change mascots lightly. It is an extraordinarily rare and tumultuous undertaking. The only examples that come to my mind were the obviously necessary but nevertheless still often externally compelled changes from use of a Native American-related Mascot. So, to justify the tumult, the reasons must be compelling and, if there be not actual consensus, at least the need for a change needs to be widely understood.

How widely felt is the need to make a change? After all, one letter in eight years? Almost without exception, the recent messages I have seen are on the other side, expressing worry that we might change the mascot. Is there a wish to change the mascot, then, that is widespread enough to engage Western in a discussion of changing the mascot? My instincts tell me, “almost certainly not.”

But, the only factually accurate statement I can offer is, “We do not know.” As one data point, I wish that former AS Board had gone ahead with that once-proposed referendum. Perhaps the current AS Board might choose to do so this year, but that is entirely their call.

And how compelling are the arguments? I must confess that I have some sympathy with several who have asked me: compelling or not, when it comes to addressing the persistent and daunting issues of injustice and oppression, is this where Western is going to focus its energies?

However, I must also acknowledge that issues such as the mascot have to do with questions at our core: how we think of ourselves. Matters of identity and status. Of respect (or lack thereof). Equally strongly felt on the various sides of the issue.

Knowing, then, the seriousness of the emotions this issue would tap, how should we proceed? Referenda, surveys, and the like may inform our discussion. Is there enough concern, though, to justify what would be a tumultuous undertaking? If we all were to conclude that there is, then we would begin a process of serious discussion, reasoning, listening, hearing, and mutually felt empathy because all sides warrant the most serious consideration.

That’s my preferred milieu: leading not with answers but by asking questions that take us outside our zones of comfort. Would love to engage the campus in dialogue, with no perceived notion of where we would end up but with great confidence in our campus finding the right place for Western to be. But, one must cautiously pick the opportunities to so do for the period of tumult and disruption is costly. To begin, there must be evidence of widespread concern. I do not see such evidence.

That is one reason I have concluded that we will remain the Vikings. I could be wrong and I would hope that there will be continuing discussion from which we all, me certainly included, could learn. Should a wide-spread degree of concern about our mascot become evident, and it could, then what?

Here I run head long into a pragmatic consideration. The ensuing discussion requires careful stewardship. By us all. It will take considerable time. Looking around the country at the few instances of such discussion, consideration of a mascot change involves a multiyear dialogue. Yet, my months left serving Western will too soon conclude. I will not begin a process I cannot bring to closure. So that leads me, again, to the same conclusion: we are remaining the Vikings.

Well, the Seahawks are about to take the field and puppies Andy and Lucy are patiently waiting to join me in front of the tube. As always, my reasons are laid out for your critical review and improvement.




Page Updated 11.23.2015