The five culture traits DU must correct to earn back our trust

The past weeks have been excruciating ones for the University of Denver community, as the behavior of DU administrators created a deep gash in the University’s relationship with many of its alumni and fans. The senior DU administrators’ dishonest mascot policy and its arrogant implementation banning Boone, the insidious plan to drop the Pioneer name and replace it with “Trailblazers”, and the maddeningly slow, often tone-deaf reaction of university officials once exposed, were all damaging. Just as damaging in the long term, however, is the University’s failure to present us with any kind of problem recognition, contrition or roadmap for improvement.

Accordingly, we have taken the liberty of offering our suggestions for improvement — in the hope they can see we are as serious about their need for improvement as we are angry about their past activities.

There were five underlying DU culture traits that we believe must be corrected if DU is going to win back our trust:

  1. DISLOYALTY MUST BECOME LOYALTY: Elements of the senior administration were working against DU’s 93-year-old nickname. The loss of this brand would not only have been hugely harmful to the school, the very idea of it is insulting to almost every living DU alumnus and fan. DU should seek to create a culture of loyalty, and it starts with embracing who we are — including our western heritage and culture. It’s time to step up and own our western heritage, including its scars, instead of running from it. Let this be the opportunity to create a greater sense of unity in our western culture.
  2. DECEIT MUST BECOME INTEGRITY: The University’s “safety” cover story for the mask policy was blatantly dishonest, and they know it. For a university that lists integrity as the top value on its honor code, it is simply shocking that this policy was conceived, implemented and still continues today, with top leaders still blithely insisting the policy is about safety. The mask policy has been proven to be all about banning DU’s unofficial mascot, Denver Boone. DU’s own campus safety chief admitted to The Denver Post that other mascots are welcome on the DU campus, and since DU has declined to admit a vetted Boone, we really have no idea how they can call this us a “safety” policy with a straight face. DU needs to either admit Boone with the right security vetting as a permitted exception (if the policy must stand), or drop the stupid, debunked policy altogether. Continuing to stand behind this botched policy daily undermines the administration’s credibility with its alumni. DU must be honest in all it does, and that must start at the top.
  3. PUNITIVE MUST BECOME ADDITIVE: The “Inclusive Excellence” leaders seem to believe that DU must punish DU’s proud western culture in order for DU to become more attractive to the minority audiences they are seeking to build. We believe that this kind of punitive culture creates more division than unity, and makes the majority resent the minorities (and the minorities resent the majority even more) which is exactly the wrong approach. We believe that all cultures are important and that DU should be additive in its approach instead of punitive. Let’s make the Pioneer tent larger so that everyone is included — not just punish the majority.
  4. EXCLUSION MUST BECOME INCLUSION: We believe that DU’s most colossal failure in this crisis was the exclusion of its alumni. The exclusionary end-run DU did around its own alumni, failing to engage in any consultation either on the Boone ban or the nickname change, was not only an egregious mistake, it also created a huge erosion of trust for its largest constituency. It is mind-boggling that a major university could even consider identity change without consulting with its largest constituency.  We’ve seen that Chancellor Chopp had alumni exclusion issues when leading both Colgate and Swarthmore, prior to coming to DU. It’s time that she learned how important we are to DU’s success. We hope that DU can figure out ways of including alumni viewpoints at the Board of Trustees level, as well as through the creation of alumni advisory councils and improved outreach and alumni consultation. DU needs to learn from this experience, and the alumni have much to contribute to help DU emerge as a better place.
  5. ARROGANCE MUST BECOME RESPECT:  Arrogance can work two ways. There is the swagger that comes with doing something well, and there is an arrogance that comes from being defensive about wrongdoing. DU has been guilty of the latter. The tone-deaf and deflective way DU handled this crisis, once exposed, is reflective not only of a lack of contrition but also of disregard and disrespect for the intelligence of its own family. But DU’s arrogance goes back further. It was demonstrated back in 2016, for example, when our emails on this topic were left unanswered. Arrogance was also part of the fait accompli reach-out to some alumni only after the devious mascot policy was already created. Arrogance also extended to the condescending talking points and inauthentic form e-mails that DU used to answer its alumni in the last few weeks, as well as to the back-door nickname retention announcement to one select alumnus — with instructions to that alumnus to disseminate it. Finally, by not yet publicly owning up to, or showing any public contrition for any of its many mistakes, DU has shown nearly breathtaking arrogance toward its own family.  By addressing the disloyalty, deceit, punitive and exclusionary aspects of its culture, perhaps DU can properly claim the more positive side of arrogance — the swagger of doing things well.