As always, it’s a great day to be a Pioneer. But perhaps it’s even better today than most others.
University of Denver Chancellor Dr. Jeremy Haefner finally made an official public statement that the school will retain the popular 95-year old nickname “Pioneers,” according to a long letter October 21st sent to alumni and responding to anti-Pioneer posters’ demands, linked here.
The key passage for Pioneer fans is:
“As such, our decision is to retain the usage of the Pioneer moniker, affirmed most recently by our Board of Trustees in 2018, while emphasizing more than ever the positive associations of the word, which describe our goals for our collective future.
At the same time, we must also use the contested definition of the Pioneer moniker to educate, learn and uncover why this word embodies both pain and pride. The University of Denver is committed to continuing its use of the word pioneer and to fully educating our community on why some in our community reject it and why some honor it.
In proceeding in this way, we aim to reclaim and define our moniker in ways that embody our current values and commitments. We can and must lead with deliberation into our next phase of evolution as a campus, as a learning community of diverse students and scholars and as an equitable and inclusive home for each of us, and those who come after us.”
This news is a welcome relief for thousands of DU students, alumni, and fans who continue to treasure the benefits of the nickname and its 95 years of positive equity, national/regional identity, and pride in DU’s history — inspiring innovation, daring, and discovery, otherwise known as Pioneering.
“We’re obviously thrilled,” said Damien Goddard, ’89, the original founder and Godfather of LetsGoDU. “The DU Board of Trustees and Chancellor Haefner now recognize the history, power, and potential of the Pioneer brand among its community and beyond. Let’s hope this Chancellor’s statement will finally end these divisive years of controversy for good, and that we can now focus on coming together in unity as Pioneers.”
The nickname has been under fire since 2016 by a small, loud group of disgruntled DU students looking for a windmill and a small group of allied faculty and staff, including some tasked with teaching students how to protest against their own school. This group has claimed that ‘Pioneer’ is a primarily racist term that references the genocide of the Native American population.
Indeed today was a very good day for DU leadership, who made the first official public statement on the nickname since 2008 when then-Chancellor Robert Coombe promised the DU community that we “would always be the Pioneers.”
Haefner’s statement hopefully ends the nickname strife, which began in earnest in April of 2016, when DU’s diversity leaders, under then-Chancellor Rebecca Chopp, began to saber-rattle internally about a potential nickname change. That agitation then led to the controversial “NoMorePios” campaign in late 2017, followed by the subsequent removal of DU’s unofficial mascot, Denver Boone, from campus via a now ironic mask policy, implemented in December of 2017. That momentum of those acts led the emboldened DU administrators to attempt backdoor collusion on a nickname change to “Trailblazers” in January of 2018, which was fortunately thwarted, thanks in part to the efforts of alumni, some of the writers here at LetsGoDU and our passionate readership.
Since then, DU leaders and the Board of Trustees added more fuel to the fire by sending mixed signals and continuing the strong DU tradition of sitting on the fence and attempting to avoid offending anyone. They’ve been making private assurances to keep the nickname to some, while allowing the scrubbing of the Pioneer name from campus programs, as they refused to enter the public debate.
The dispute reached a recent crescendo as the ‘student’ group (led by DU faculty agitators) called Righteous Anger Healing Resistance (RAHR) demanded an end to Pioneers by February, 2021, as part of a protest march around the DU campus on Sept. 25. That demand made its way to the DU Board of Trustees and Chancellor Haefner, who were smart enough to see that 95 years of brand equity in “Pioneers” would take decades to replace and that the resulting lost engagement, donations, and bad press would hurt unity as DU faces ongoing financial uncertainty amid a global pandemic and a looming capital campaign of gargantuan proportions.
Frankly, most people, especially outside of the University, do not understand the argument raging at University & Evans. With 24 other colleges and universities in the USA that still employ the Pioneer nickname, DU is the only one that seemed to have an issue. Furthermore, DU has gone to great lengths in recent years to scrub campus of all western-themed Pioneers imagery, instead focusing on the positive, innovative connotation to the nickname.
Most people today identify pioneers as leaders and first-movers in their respective fields – a reputation most colleges would love to have. In fact, the recent choice of “Pioneer” by Democratic Vice-Presidential candidate Kamala Harris as her U.S. Secret Service code name helped dispel the notion that the word ‘pioneer’ conveys only western settlement and destructive expansion more than a century ago.
The other damages caused by the ‘debate’ were partisan arguments, often favoring one culture at the expense of another. Growing the inclusive pie should be all about additive efforts that generate broader understanding and acceptance, without employing sweeping generalizations, negative stereotypes, or culture removal tactics.
All that said, our own ‘celebration’ today is somewhat restrained, as we have a deep sense of deja vu after fighting the same battle back in 2018. After all, we’ve had to fight very hard for years just to maintain a nickname that is already in place. Frankly, this never should have been controversial in the first place, and we remain concerned that we may have fight this same battle once again under the next chancellor. While today is a great day, we urge Pioneer fans to remain vigilant on this distracting issue.
The future success of ‘Pioneers’ as a nickname is also predicated on institutional support, and let’s hope DU will actually get behind Pioneers, instead of merely tolerating it. They can start to show this intent by elevating the Pioneer nickname back to those prominent campus traditions where it has been recently (and quietly) scrubbed behind the scenes, traditions that include the former “Pioneer Passage” orientation event (recently rebranded as ‘New Student Convocation’) and the 95-year old (former) Pioneer Awards, which were recently renamed the “Crimson and Gold Awards.”
Ultimately, DU selected the correct course. While challenging times lie ahead with COVID-19, soaring tuition costs, and an ever-changing educational landscape, the DU community has faced far bigger challenges than this in its long history.
Today, tomorrow, and always go Pioneers!