Pioneers Nickname Update

It has been a few months since we last reported on DU’s issues with the Pioneer nickname. We can report that we have heard and seen progress on this front. Still, we must be diligent as no formal announcement has been made regarding the nickname.

First, we’re hearing on pretty good authority that DU Chancellor Jeremy Haefner is NOT planning to change the Pioneer nickname at this time. This, in and of itself, seems like very good news for Pioneer fans and alumni. While we still want Chancellor Haefner to announce this publicly in order to settle the sense of public skepticism on this topic, this reported change of administrative mindset does appear to be significant progress compared to 2018. That year, senior DU administrators were actively trying to change the Pioneer nickname in secret, presumably to ‘Trailblazers’, before our informed readers weighed in publicly and privately.

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The second piece of good news we’re hearing is that DU is now mulling a long-term strategy for the Pioneer nickname, perhaps beginning later this academic year. Instead of using the Pioneer name to convey only western heritage, the University leadership wants to convey and spotlight the innovation-centric definition of the word “Pioneer“. Certainly, we here at Let’sGoDU can get behind that intention, as we also believe that Pioneers are far more than just western settlers. Future words and images of fellow Pioneer innovators would actually be a step in the right direction to widen the definition of Pioneer, and would be an important step of conciliation for those few in our community who still oppose the Pioneer nickname.

That said, ‘Pioneering’ is a very real part of Denver’s past and DU’s founding. The ‘cancel culture’ embraced by now-departed administrators does the university little good in building a bridge between different groups and the past. Going forward, efforts should be made to bring people together, not divide.

In efforts to recast ‘Pioneers’, we strongly recommend the continuation of a “no official mascot” approach. To that end, we would urge the university NOT to try and codify this innovation-centric Pioneer emphasis into a new official non-western mascot. Mascots are usually terrible vehicles for looking forward, as their purpose is designed for looking backwards, driving nostalgia and appealing to children. DU has 85+ plus years of brand equity in western heritage imagery that unleashes a great deal of pride, nostalgia and connection to generations of DU fans and alumni, and any new non-western Pioneer mascot would quickly be seen as a denial of the past and damage the very effort to make Pioneers more broadly inclusive.

The University of Michigan, Stanford University and Dartmouth College are three examples of high level aspirational schools with academic (and athletic) brand names that have no official mascots in costume, and the Denver Pioneers can exist happily in that kind of rarefied company. By the way, Stanford and Dartmouth also generally tolerate the two ‘unofficial’ mascots – the Stanford ‘Tree’, and ‘Keggy the Keg’, respectively. These unofficial mascots fill the void since those schools dropped “Indian” nicknames decades ago.

A third piece of good news is that recent personnel changes in DU leadership over the last year are helping to clean the slate from the previous purveyors of past DU nickname and mascot malfeasance. Almost all of the DU senior leaders who were working toward either nickname name change and and/or anti-Boone policies have left their positions of power at DU since January of 2018. The Board Chair, Chancellor, Provost, and Campus Life/Inclusive Excellence leadership (to name a few) — all have either turned over to new people, or apparently are in the process of turning over by the end of this academic year. This major leadership turnover gives hope that the disloyalty, sedition, secret policy development, incompetence and poor communications of the last administration on matters of nickname and mascot will soon be a thing of the past. We welcome these personnel changes, and believe a more positive approach is taken to bring everyone together.

Finally, while the cloudy skies of 2018 and 2019 may be starting to clear under Chancellor Jeremy Haefner, we want to reestablish trust with DU again. We urge DU not only to make a public statement on the nickname issue, but also to widen the tent to include the input of alumni and other engaged community members on these kinds of issues in the future. The Board of Trustees is adding an alumni advisory group – an excellent first step. A soon-to-be named Vice Chancellor for Advancement will play a critical role, too. That position must understand and effectively represent the views of key external stakeholders to the Board of Trustees and other university leaders, especially heading into a capital campaign.

We are cautiously optimistic but the past gives us reason to be guarded as well. We are hoping that the future brings a new era of transparency between the DU administration and its stakeholders. Time will tell.

Let’s hope for a great 2020!




4 thoughts on “Pioneers Nickname Update”

  1. Good update. Always have to be cautious about thinking that the departure of certain people from the university will cure the ills that those people created. But cautiously optimistic that new people coming in won’t share the views of their predecessors on the Pioneer nickname. The fact that some of these people are leaving also illustrates how dangerous (read: stupid) it is to let individuals with no strong ties to the university (besides a short term of employment) guide university policy on traditions of a 156-year old university. Those traditions are entitled to more weight than the views of someone who won’t even be associated with DU a year later.

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