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Jane Ahlin, Published August 28 2011

Ahlin: In the end, UND logo fight about good ol’ boy power

When we both were parents of young children, a friend of mine owned a campaign-style button that read, “What part of ‘NO’ don’t you understand?”

The latest (last?) gasp of the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux logo controversy brings the old button to mind. Actually, what comes to mind is the ill-conceived return to the logo controversy concocted in the North Dakota House of Representatives, along with a woeful lack of leadership by the attorney general and governor in response to the legislation.

My friend’s button was a good button for parenting, especially parenting adolescent children who respond to reasoned refusals for permission with their own counter offers – lots and lots of counter offers.

Child: Oh, please, please, just let me go to the sleepover tonight, and tomorrow I’ll be back at 6 a.m. scrubbing floors and serving you breakfast in bed.

Parent: I’m sorry, but I told you yesterday no sleepovers this weekend. You were out of school three days with bronchitis, and I don’t want you to have a relapse.

Child: But I’m not still sick … please … I’ll go to sleep at 10 – even 9:30. Just let me go this once – really, I won’t ask for anything else till Christmas. Pleeease. ...

Well, you get the idea. Forget reason: better simply to point to the button.

In an article by Chuck Haga for Forum Communications following the recent meeting between NCAA and North Dakota officials in Indianapolis, state Board of Higher Education President Grant Shaft was quoted as saying, “We have exhausted all avenues, and we are now going to have to retire the nickname.”

Actually, all avenues short of taking the NCAA consequences were exhausted in 2007. Proponents of the Sioux moniker had been told “no” in every conceivable way over a period of many years (North Dakota is the last of 33 NCAA member schools to give up its Indian moniker). In fact, a settlement had been negotiated on behalf of North Dakota – after a lawsuit against the NCAA was lost – by the very same attorney general who sits in the office today. The lieutenant governor back then is the governor now.

In other words, the same players who accepted the “done deal” reneged. The attorney general softballed his legal opinion of the bad legislation mandating the Sioux logo, and the governor kept his veto pen in his pocket. In doing so, they undermined the status of the offices they hold and ended up looking as if they’re afraid of House Majority Leader Al Carlson’s power. The only person to look weaker was the chancellor for North Dakota’s college and university system whose voice seemed neither wanted nor needed.

The excuse used by those leaders was that they’d never seen so much constituent feedback on an issue, an outpouring leading them to believe that the people of North Dakota weren’t quite ready to move on. (Gee whiz, what could they do other than let the logo issue blow up one more time?)

Horse puckey. The time to respond to the concerns of Sioux logo supporters was before the NCAA settlement was reached, not four years after the deal was signed, sealed and delivered, and in 2011, North Dakota needed an attorney general and governor to flex their institutional muscle in saying so.

That Carlson now says he’s “not here to obstruct the process or to hurt UND” would be amusing if it weren’t so cynical, since the damage has been done, he expresses no regrets, and he’s not going to submit legislation in a now-necessary special session to undo his bad law.

At the same time, this long, bitter logo fight that rendered former UND President Charles Kupchella pretty much ineffective was about more than Carlson and the 2011 Legislature. No doubt begun in affection for the history and tradition embodied in the Sioux moniker, it became the specter of old power fighting to maintain itself in the face of undeniable change.

The good news is that UND President Robert Kelley is showing himself to be a strong leader able to guide an excellent university into the future. After all, it’s the educational strength of the university that matters. A logo is just a logo.


Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.