At a May 22 special meeting, the Senate Executive Committee approved a resolution that supports Chancellor Phyllis M. Wise's stated goal of permanently dropping Chief Illiniwek and adopting a new campus symbol.
Wise told SEC members at the May 13 regular meeting that she would not support a grassroots initiative to bring back the Chief even on a limited basis.
"I believe you can't go backwards," she said then. "I think having something in its place would fill a void, but would have to be a student-driven thing."
The issue came to the fore at the May 29 U. of I. Board of Trustees meeting in Chicago, when former Chief portrayer Rick Legue asked the board to bring back the Chief symbol on a limited basis.
Legue, representing a group of former portrayers, suggested the university enter talks with leaders of the Oklahoma-based Peoria tribe to sanction a "re-invented" Chief Illiniwek tradition. He suggested the group has "every reason to believe" that tribal leaders are willing to discuss the idea.
"Six years after the chief's retirement, the desire for what the Chief represents to Illini is still very strong across this country," he said. "We hear this from our fellow Illini from every walk of life."
Under the proposal, which was not acted upon by trustees, the Chief would appear twice during the year, once for a "Three-In-One" performance and again during a "theme-based program" at a single-day event staged to raise money for the tribe, the university and charitable programs. The portrayer would remain stationary and not dance during the appearances, and Legue said the event could raise hundreds of thousands of dollars. The Chief's regalia, originally inspired by Lakota-Sioux dress, also would change to reflect Peoria tribe tradition.
Legue suggested entering into an agreement with Peoria tribal leaders and re-evaluate the proposal in two years.
"Today I speak not only for my colleagues, but most importantly as ambassador for the 425,000-plus living alumni, all of whom experienced the Chief in one way or another on campus," he told trustees.
Joyce Tolliver, a professor of Spanish and a member of the SEC, spoke against Legue's May 29 proposal, though she said her comments were her own and not part of the SEC resolution.
"For some people, the Chief represents a proud tradition; for others, the Chief represents a shameful legacy," Tolliver said. "What is not open to debate is that the use of that symbol sharply divided the university community. That division will become a matter of regular public display again if this request is granted."
She said bringing back the Chief, even on a limited basis, would result in negative press coverage, accusations of racial insensitivity and the renewed threat of NCAA sanctions.
"It will consume untold hours in distracting debate that does nothing to move our university into a better future," she said.
In her May 13 statement to the SEC, Wise said her decision to permanently abandon the Chief symbol had come after consultations with all sides of the issue, including Peoria tribal leaders. She said Peoria Chief John Froman had indicated bringing back any version of the symbol would be disrespectful.
The SEC's statement said it "supports the position of Chancellor Phyllis Wise that the Chief is part of our campus's past, not its present or future."
The statement "affirms and reinforces" similar resolutions against the Chief symbol passed by the senate in 1998 and 2004 - resolutions that effectively called the Chief "an inappropriate symbol" for the university. It also supports a 2007 decision by the U. of I. Board of Trustees that called for the elimination of the Chief symbol. Copies of the resolution were sent to the board secretary, senate leaders and the chancellors of the U. of I.'s two other campuses in Chicago and Springfield.
"We see no reason to revisit that decision," the SEC statement says.
Wise said her meeting with Peoria leaders led her to investigate ways to greater recognize and celebrate Native American heritage on campus. She said that officials will be working to improve Native American student recruitment and that the issue would be included in the chancellor's soon-to-be-announced campuswide diversity initiative.
"I'm trying to find ways to elevate our knowledge of Native American culture as it relates to Illinois," she said.