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Kelley urges Legislature to retire nickname

UND President Robert Kelley used his fourth annual "Wake up to UND" breakfast address today to urge the North Dakota Legislature to overturn its mandate that the university retain its Fighting Sioux nickname.

UND President Robert Kelley
University of North Dakota President Robert Kelley. (Herald file photo by John Stennes)

UND President Robert Kelley used his fourth annual "Wake up to UND" breakfast address today to urge the North Dakota Legislature to overturn its mandate that the university retain its Fighting Sioux nickname.

"It is my sincere hope that the law will be rescinded during the special session of the Legislature in November," Kelley told an audience that included many civic and business leaders as well as UND faculty and staff.

University athletics have been under sanctions since Aug. 15, under terms of the 2007 lawsuit settlement with the NCAA, causing students, faculty and staff to be "divided over an intractable situation," he said.

"In the long run, these sanctions, and the responses of other NCAA member institutions as a result of these sanctions, will be detrimental to UND athletics," Kelley said. "Conference affiliation will become increasingly problematic, and scheduling, recruitment of top athletes and retention of top coaching staff will become harder and harder."

Kelley, who spent the bulk of his time today heralding the achievements of the university and progress of his "Exceptional UND" campaign, also warned that UND's national reputation "has been diminished" due to increased national media coverage of the issue.


Attention paid to the nickname issue "has displaced national discussion of the excellent quality of UND's academic and research programs," he said, "and has created a perception at the national level that UND's campus environment may not be as welcoming to all students as we would like for it to be perceived."

The cost of retaining the nickname and logo "is too high," Kelley said. "Our athletic program will not succeed in the long run, and UND's national reputation will suffer."

Repealing the law that requires the university's athletic teams to be known as the Fighting Sioux -- adopted earlier this year after a furious email campaign by nickname supporters and impassioned testimony from both sides in daylong hearings in the House and Senate -- would "allow UND to move through this difficult issue," he said.

There was no outward sign of how Kelley's remarks played with his audience, neither cheers nor boos, but several people indicated later that -- despite their disappointment over the prospective loss of the much-revered nickname and logo -- they accepted his assessment of the situation.

"I've always supported the nickname, and I think we've always treated it with respect," said John Schmisek, a Grand Forks County commissioner. "But it's time to let it go, and I give President Kelley a lot of kudos for making this stand."

Schmisek said he believes that "most of the community" is ready to move on.

"There always will be some" who will urge continued resistance to the NCAA position, he said. "But anybody who looks at the potential long-term effects of this understands that the situation is just too hurtful, internally and externally."

Shaft: We know what will happen


Grant Shaft, president of the State Board of Higher Education, said he thought Kelley "was spot on with what we're dealing with now."

After Shaft and several state leaders including Gov. Jack Dalrymple met with NCAA officials in Indianapolis Aug. 12 and failed to get the association to budge regarding the nickname, the higher education board instructed Kelley to prepare for a transition that would be substantially complete by the end of the year.

Leaders of the Big Sky Conference, who will hear a report from Kelley on the nickname situation next week in Utah, have indicated that the continuing dispute could jeopardize UND's entry into the Division I conference next year.

The Legislature plans to revisit the nickname issue during its special session in early November, and talk among members has suggested that the law passed earlier this year will be repealed or altered to turn authority over the matter to the state board.

Some legislators have vowed to fight that effort, however, and they have the support of many nickname defenders -- including the Spirit Lake Sioux tribe, which has declared attempts to drop the nickname "a direct attack against our race, customs, traditions, culture and people."

Shaft said the opposition to retiring the nickname ignores the fact "that we no longer have options with the NCAA. We know concretely now what's going to happen" if the nickname and logo are retained.

In addition to the risk of losing affiliation with the Big Sky and potential scheduling and recruitment problems, Shaft said he believes that Notre Dame's recent decision to affiliate with Hockey East -- and not the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference that includes UND -- was due in part to UND's being on sanctions because of the ongoing nickname fight.

"To what degree, I don't know, but I believe it impacted Notre Dame's decision," he said.


Some nickname defenders have downplayed the NCAA sanctions and the likelihood of scheduling and recruitment problems that could work against the stature of UND's athletics programs.

"Some people need to see the negative results before they say, 'Oh, you're right,'" Shaft said. "But we can't risk that."

In his remarks, Kelley cited the national economic difficulties and the potential impact on funding for research as another challenge facing the university. He said UND continues to address issues of access and affordability.

"But I am optimistic," he said. The university is making progress toward its "Exceptional UND" priorities, is in "excellent financial shape" and educates students who are "well prepared to take their place in the world."

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