Remember back when June Jones blew into town as head football coach at the University of Hawaii and immediately moved to “rebrand” the team, dumping the longtime “Rainbows” and ordering the change to “Warriors”?
It’s interesting to compare that process–hint: there really wasn’t one–to what’s going on at Whitman College, where I graduated back in the days of the dinosaurs. Well, maybe there were no dinosaurs, but there were also no vineyards or wineries yet. So it was definitely a while back.
Whitman’s sports teams have previously been known as the Missionaries, or Fighting Missionaries, to be more precise, references back to the 19th-Century Presbyterian missionary couple, Marcus Whitman and his wife, Narcissa Prentiss Whitman, for whom the college is named.
The “missionary” label was challenged, and the college set in motion an inclusive review process which has now resulted in a recommendation that the name and mascot be changed. A separate process has now been launched to recommend a replacement.
The whole approach is a model in terms of inclusiveness and participation. All alumni, students, faculty and staff were surveyed. The committee, with representation from all constituencies, then wrestled with the decision.
A far cry from turning the decision over to the whims of the lone wolf football coach, a decision that later had to be reversed.
Anyway, I thought I would share an excerpt from an email from Whitman’s president, received this week, in which she review the lengthy review process.
April 6, 2016
Dear members of the Whitman community,
I write today to provide an update on the work of the Mascot Working Group and information on the next steps in this process.
There are myriad elements and influences that define a college experience: its history, its faculty, its students, its location, its governance, its co-curricular opportunities. As I have learned in my first year at Whitman, our college offers a wonderfully rich and robust experience. We work hard to make that experience as inclusive of and welcoming to all members of our community as possible, while also acknowledging that it is sometimes the difficult conversations around challenging ideas that lead to meaningful learning and growth. Last fall, based on questions raised in the past about the Whitman mascot and conversations that were then taking place across campus, I decided that it was time to ask whether our college mascot was appropriately inclusive and welcoming to today’s Whitman community. I do not think a mascot (defined as a person, animal, or object adopted as the symbol of a group and believed to bring good luck) should precipitate the difficult conversations around challenging ideas. A mascot is meant to be something around which supporters of a college, and particularly athletic teams, rally.
To help answer the question, we formed the Mascot Working Group in December 2015, chaired by Whitman Overseer Tricia Montgomery (Class of 1990), and consisting of current students, faculty, staff, alumni, and governing board members. They were charged with making a recommendation about whether the Missionary mascot is appropriate for Whitman today.
After a thorough process that took into account the feedback of thousands of alumni, the Mascot Working Group reached a unanimous decision that the Missionary mascot is not the appropriate mascot for our college today. I and the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees have endorsed that recommendation. The full working group report, including a summary of their process, guiding principles, and recommendation, is available online at https://www.whitman.edu/mascot for your information, along with an executive summary of the survey data. While the working group reached a unanimous recommendation, I recognize that a significant group of Whitties, particularly among our alumni, voiced strong opposition to any move away from the Missionary mascot. I know that this decision will disappoint those in that group, but hope that the retirement of the Missionary mascot is understood in light of the fact that all were given the opportunity to comment on the question and that the Mascot Working Group considered all the input it received. More importantly, we all know that the mascot is not the defining element of Whitman College; instead, it is our shared commitment to the educational mission of Whitman – that of providing a rigorous, residential education in the liberal arts.
This review process enabled us to hear from more than 7,100 Whitman students, alumni, and other members of the community; we learned that it is important to have a unifying symbol to reflect our collegiate pride and enthusiasm. And so I have again turned to Tricia Montgomery to lead a new working group to tackle the next phase of establishing an official mascot for Whitman College.
The committee, which will also include faculty, staff, students and alumni, will work over this summer to compile and refine a list of prospective official mascots. We will have the unique opportunity to create a new symbol for Whitman and its athletic teams, with a vote among the entire college community resulting in the naming of a new mascot in the fall of 2016.