October 2, 2000

The people who run major American universities have to wrestle with a lot of weighty issues that demand wisdom, knowledge and foresight--how to attract the best faculty, how to prepare students for life and work, how to pay for it all. But at the University of Illinois, administrators
have been dogged for years by a question that has nothing to do with the true mission of the university. The question could have been disposed of years ago, but the future of Chief Illiniwek, a symbol that offends many Native Americans, remains a preoccupation.

Team nicknames and mascots are suprisingly controversial issues, but it's rarely hard to figure out the right answer. The hard part, apparently, is acting on it. Niles West High School in Skokie dropped its Indian mascot in 1989, but only now does it appear that the school board
may discontinue use of the nickname as well. A vote is scheduled for Oct. 16.

Why does it take so long to recognize the obvious? Stanford University discarded "Indians" in favor of "Cardinals" in 1972. Miami University of Ohio switched from Redskins to RedHawks in 1997. Naperville Central High School did likewise five years earlier. In all, some 600 high schools across the country have mustered the will to make such changes.

But University of Illinois trustees, who have been petitioned for years by Native American groups to get rid of Chief Illiniwek, are taking their time. After soliciting comments on the issue last spring--and receiving some 18,000--they are awaiting a report due in October, and they plan to respond to it next spring.

It really shouldn't take all that trouble to address the issue. Supporters of the chief say he's intended to honor the American Indians who originally inhabited Illinois and from whom the state takes its name. That motive may be quite sincere, but the fact is, many actual Native
Americans regard the symbol as insulting or patronizing.

Most of us, if a gesture intended to flatter ended up giving offense, would not want to make it again. But some Illinoisans want to go on "honoring" Indians no matter how angry it makes them.

If the U. of I. were to retire the chief, officials could spend more time worrying about the really important problems facing higher education. That day can't come too soon.