UND group: Retire the nicknameLike circuit riders seeking to fan popular support for a candidate or a cause, leaders of University of North Dakota’s Alumni Association made a four-city aerial tour of North Dakota Tuesday, hoping to persuade voters to allow retirement of the university’s Fighting Sioux nickname.
By: By Chuck Haga , Forum Communications Co., The Jamestown Sun
Like circuit riders seeking to fan popular support for a candidate or a cause, leaders of University of North Dakota’s Alumni Association made a four-city aerial tour of North Dakota Tuesday, hoping to persuade voters to allow retirement of the university’s Fighting Sioux nickname.
The nickname has been “a source of pride, honor and excellence for a long time,” said Tim O’Keefe, CEO of the UND Alumni Association and Foundation, but NCAA sanctions mean that “keeping the nickname comes at too high a price.”
At consecutive news conferences in Fargo, Bismarck, Minot and Grand Forks, O’Keefe announced that the Alumni Association will take the lead role in a statewide campaign to encourage a “yes” vote on Measure 4 in the June 12 primary election, which would allow UND to retire the nickname.
“It’s not about preference anymore,” O’Keefe said. “It’s about the price (UND) will pay if we are forced to keep the nickname.”
The announcements drew a quick and sharp response from nickname supporters who circulated petitions to get the issue on a statewide ballot. Those trying to retire the nickname “continually overplay their hand,” said Sean Johnson, of Bismarck.
“We take pride in the efficiency and overwhelming success of our grassroots campaign efforts,” Johnson said. “We have been successful because truth and principle can stand on their own laurels, without exaggeration or resorting to fear.”
At issue is a law adopted by the 2011 Legislature that requires UND to keep the Sioux nickname, which first came into use in 1930. That law was repealed during a special session in November after state officials met with NCAA leaders and found them unwilling to bend, but the law was reinstated when nickname supporters filed their referral petitions.
Both sides will focus part of their efforts on making sure voters understand what their votes mean. Ballot language for Measure 4 had to be redrafted, adding to the confusion inevitable in a “repeal of a repeal.” As it stands, a “yes” vote on June 12 would uphold the Legislature’s action in November, allowing UND to retire the nickname.
O’Keefe said he had “the unanimous support” of his board members for the role he intends the association to play, and he said he is confident a strong majority of member alumni back “the aggressive position we’re taking,” as well.
A budget for the campaign hasn’t been set, he said, but he expects it to cost around $250,000. The effort will rely on donations made expressly for that purpose. Alumni and others around the state have “offered financial support and their time and talents” to get the message out.
As a publicly funded institution, the university “is very limited as to what they can say or do,” O’Keefe said. “They can inform, but they can’t advocate.”
UND President Robert Kelley made the same point speaking with reporters in Grand Forks Tuesday after the opening alumni news conference in Fargo. It’s appropriate for the alumni organization to take the lead role on the nickname issue, he said, “because I and the university can not.”
Up in the air
O’Keefe was joined at the opening news conference in Fargo by Rick Burgum, head of the UND Foundation, and other members of the Alumni Association. They flew later to host similar news conferences in Bismarck, Minot and Grand Forks.
The Alumni Association and UND Foundation leased the plane, owned by the North Dakota State University Foundation, from the Fargo Jet Center, O’Keefe said later Tuesday, after a blogger raised questions about the use of state property to advance the campaign against keeping the nickname. Similar questions were raised during the 2011 Legislative Assembly about Kelley and other UND administrators using UND planes to ferry people to Bismarck to lobby for dropping the nickname. Kelley explained at the time that the flights provided scheduled training for student pilots and that the UND officials had to be in Bismarck anyway.
“There was no way for us to know whose plane we were privately leasing, and we did not know we were in the NDSU Foundation aircraft until informed by the pilot halfway to Bismarck,” O’Keefe said Tuesday. “Nor is there anything inappropriate about our use of the plane. After all, it is owned by the NDSU Foundation, (which is) not a state agency.
“We are in full compliance with North Dakota law,” he said.
O’Keefe said UND alumni will write newspaper op-ed pieces and letters to the editor, speak to local service clubs and carry the “Vote Yes” message to cocktail parties and other social gatherings.
He said he understands that some within the association’s ranks remain committed to the nickname, “but right now there is nothing more important to students and the university” than retiring the nickname and moving on.
“We’ve measured those risks,” he said, “and I believe we will come out of this stronger than ever, and we will bring the whole tent together again” once the issue is resolved.
He and Kelley both said that for the first time in the history of the debate, the entire university community leadership — the administration, athletic leaders and coaches, the Alumni Association and the governing bodies representing faculty, administrators, staff and students — have accepted the need to retire the nickname and avoid further NCAA sanctions.
“I will always cherish the nickname,” said O’Keefe, who played hockey at UND. “But this issue is not about these emotions anymore.”
If UND is required to keep the nickname, “there is no question the NCAA will continue to enforce the sanctions we are already under,” including a ban on hosting championship events.
The sanctions will lead to a deteriorating athletics program and the loss of “great athletes and great coaches,” O’Keefe said. Grand Forks hotels, restaurants and retail businesses will take a serious economic hit. The city and state will lose tax revenue.
“It’s impacting recruiting now,” he said, as some prospective UND athletes are raising questions about sanctions, scheduling and “conference uncertainty.” UND is set to compete next year in the Division I Big Sky Conference, but the conference commissioner has said Big Sky presidents want to see the contentious nickname issue resolved.
He repeated earlier warnings, that such schools as Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa already have cut athletic connections with UND because of the nickname struggle and NCAA sanctions. “Even UND’s outstanding hockey program is at risk,” he said.
Johnson, however, said the NCAA sanctions “are minimal and easily managed,” and he noted that UND is a Big Sky Conference member with competition scheduled into 2015.
He said nickname supporters “expect a favorable outcome at the ballot box on June 12, through a vast majority of North Dakotans voting ‘no’ on Measure 4 to save the proud name of the Fighting Sioux, and to continue the proud and positive traditions that accompanied that name for over 80 years.”
O’Keefe said people who downplay the effects of NCAA sanctions are “simply not paying attention.”
He said the often rancorous fight over Fighting Sioux also is having an effect on academics at the university, including the heavy demands it has placed on the time and energies of Kelley and previous presidents.
Chuck Haga is a reporter
at the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.