DU ‘Pioneers’ nickname once again at risk due to internal sabotage and erosion

Once again, recent University of Denver administrative action appears to be sabotaging the Pioneer nickname, this time quietly removing “Pioneer” from two long-standing, on-campus programs, the Pioneer Awards and Pioneer Passage. Both programs have recently been renamed to eliminate the word “Pioneer,” directly contradicting a 2018 DU Board of Trustees decision to keep the 95-year-old Pioneer nickname in place.

You’ll recall that in January 2018, we broke the story that a so-called “mask ban” was suspiciously enacted by DU to prevent the “Denver Boone” mascot from appearing at DU home games. Within weeks of that debacle, we reported that the DU central administration was secretly colluding with student groups to change the “Pioneer” nickname to “Trailblazers”. Within weeks of our stories, after vociferous objections from the alumni and fan community, then-DU Board of Trustees Chairman Doug Scrivner sent out a damage-control email with assurances that the Pioneer nickname was not going to change.

Still, the Pioneer nickname continues to be slowly scrubbed away from within. Since many of our DU fans and readers are not currently on campus, we believed it was our duty to report on this sabotage so that these quiet steps could be brought into the public sphere.

First, then-Chancellor Rebecca Chopp quietly renamed the Evans Award, the highest recognition the University could bestow, as the Chancellors’ Medal, in order to help rid DU of its association with its western pioneer founder, John Evans.

Next, in early 2019, DU’s long-standing student awards program, The Pioneer Awards, was suddenly (and quietly) renamed the Crimson and Gold Awards.

And we now have proof that Pioneer Passage, the meaningful induction ceremony during first-year orientation week, has apparently been renamed New Student Convocation, set to debut this September. The projected orientation schedule created on Apil 29th, 2019 had “Pioneer Passage” scheduled for 10:45 AM on Tuesday September 3rd, while a July 22, 2019 version of the same schedule now has “New Student Convocation” slated for the same time and date, proving that DU dropped “Pioneer Passage” name sometime between April and July of 2019.

Who is Behind These Changes?

While we can’t say for certain which high-level administrators are responsible for the changes, it is notable that both the former “Pioneer Awards” and “Pioneer Passage” likely fall under the auspices of the Office of Campus Life and Inclusive Excellence. Readers may recall the chart we published in January of 2018, identifying the hierarchy of DU administrators likely responsible for the mascot/mask debacle. Since then, almost all of those administrators have left DU or been moved from those positions of power. It may be significant that the Vice-Chancellor of Campus and Inclusive Excellence is one of only two of those administrators still remaining in their positions (the other being the Director of Campus Safety).

Indeed, the recent changes seem to demonstrate that certain administrators are continuing to attack the “Pioneer” name wherever and whenever they can — despite DU’s promise to students and alumni that they would not remove the “Pioneer” name. Like the constant drip-drip-drip of erosion, those responsible are deviously continuing to work from within to destroy the “Pioneer” name. Indeed, scrubbing the Pioneer nickname from university use has appears to have become a cause célèbre for the parties behind these changes.

At the same time, we must acknowledge that this erosion may actually be part of a calculated University-wide move to eventually eliminate the Pioneers nickname altogether. While the Board of Trustees signaled in early 2018 that there would be no nickname change, that was either untrue or their directive is being ignored and/or undermined from within.

This year, with a new Chancellor, a new Board Chair and a new Vice-Chancellor of Development (yet to be hired), the issue may, unfortunately, be on the table once again.

Implications of the Changes

DU Athletics, which continues to use the nickname “Pioneers,” may be one of the most direct casualties of the anti-Pioneer efforts. While Athletics is currently performing well above the rest of the campus, university athletes, coaches, and athletic administrators may ultimately find themselves in the crosshairs of anti-Pioneer sentiment on campus. We have long argued that athletics can be one of the primary forces in pulling an otherwise fragmented campus community together. Yet manufactured anti-Pioneer sentiment may mean that an often-apathetic student body may eventually provide even less support to athletics than they already do.

The DU alumni organization, overseen by the office of the Vice-Chancellor for Development, also uses the Pioneer name proudly, reflecting the many years of positive connection that most of the over 140,000 living alumni likely enjoy with the Pioneer name. DU’s clandestine efforts to change the name in 2018 incensed many alumni, and further efforts to do so will not play well with the largest group of people in the DU community.  The ramifications could be severe as the University moves toward the public phase of its new capital campaign to raise $1 billion.

At a minimum, scrubbing DU’s nickname from student lexicon will begin to separate students from the real and emotional connection that comes with our college nickname, as well as the identity and campus unity benefits that come with it.

The “Pioneer” nickname at DU is nearly 95 years old. It reflects, in part, a university that was actually and proudly built by western pioneers (along with much of the city and state we enjoy today) and is deeply intertwined in not just the athletic fabric of the campus but the university culture as a whole. But “Pioneer” means much more than that. As both a verb and a noun, even students who may have been pushed by administrators to object to the “Pioneer” name (often students of color, Native Americans, and foreign students) can be proud to be Pioneers as well — with many of them experiencing college for the first time or pursuing a new, exciting future as important members of a proud DU community.

Every living DU alumnus is a Pioneer, and we have shown before that attempts to sever us from that nickname (and our sense of connection) will not end well.

It seems clear that the recent changes to “Pioneers” are not accidents or coincidences.

As in the old slogan, “Watch what they do – not what they say.”

We’re watching what you do, DU, and from where we sit, it looks bad.