Will Chief Illiniwek Dance Again?

While America's legislators and business leaders desperately search for a way out of political impasses and economic travails, what, you may ask, are those who lead our colleges and universities working on? Reducing the ever-increasing inflation of tuition? Safety from campus crime? Ensuring academic success? One certainly hopes so. But last fall, at the University of Illinois' flagship campus at Urbana-Champaign, high-level administrators and professors were spending time worrying about a different vital issue: how to stop their students from promoting Illinois' banned mascot.

Students for Chief Illiniwek (SFCI) is a UI student group that wants to restore the Chief Illiniwek mascot to UI sports teams. The Illiniwek mascot (a fictional character created in 1926; there was no actual Chief Illiniwek) was retired in 2007 under pressure from the NCAA's campaign to eliminate most Native American team names and mascots. In response, SFCI was formed, and in the fall of 2009 was organizing an event called "The Next Dance" (referring to the Illiniwek mascot's traditional dance).

SFCI planned to have the event in UI's Assembly Hall and was ultimately able to do so, but it ran into a number of roadblocks along the way. In order to find out what happened, SFCI submitted an Illinois Freedom of Information Act request. The results of that request provide a startling and disturbing look at the efforts that administrators and some faculty are willing to undertake to try to derail students willing to defy political correctness on campus.

The FOIA documents, which can be downloaded here (warning, large PDF), begin with a September 6, 2009, e-mail from Renee Romano, vice chancellor for student affairs, to Michael DeLorenzo and Anna Gonzalez, associate vice chancellors for student affairs. Romano reported that she had spoken to then-Chancellor Richard Herman about the upcoming "chief dance in the assembly hall" and that Herman was "considering banning student organizations from using the assembly hall." She said she told Herman that "they might challenge the legality of banning RSOs [Registered Student Organizations] from Assembly Hall, but that I'd be willing to take it on."

By that evening, Romano had given up on that idea. This excerpt from her 8:57 p.m. e-mail to Chancellor Herman is very revealing: "From my experience, it doesn't work to develop a policy 'after the fact,' after something happens that you're trying to change. It makes it appear that you're trying to stop that particular organization which becomes a free speech issue again."