University of North Dakota president Charles Kupchella sat down with USCHO staff writer Patrick Miller earlier this week to discuss his university’s battle with the NCAA over its use of the Fighting Sioux nickname and logo.
On April 28, the NCAA Executive Committee denied UND’s final appeal for exemption from a policy that penalizes member institutions with Native American nicknames, logos or mascots the organization deems “hostile or abusive.” On June 8, the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education gave UND the authority to take the NCAA to court over the issue.
Kupchella said UND continues to work with tribal representatives to find a solution to the issue that satisfies them, the NCAA and those associated with the university. Although he said the first option was to exhaust all possibilities to continue using the nickname and logo in their current form, other options are being considered, too.
The UND president expressed disappoint that other institutions belonging to the NCAA, which touts itself as a member-driven organization, didn’t object to the anti-nickname policy being implemented by “executive fiat.” He also believes that it’s unfair for the NCAA to hold UND responsible for inappropriate, racist behavior of opposing schools’ fans during sporting events away from the university.
Kupchella explained his personal view of the controversy by applying “the golden rule.” Being half Lithuanian, he said he would accept an honor from people who intended to recognize Lithuanians in a positive manner, even if he didn’t completely agree with how it was done.
USCHO: There’s a frequently quoted e-mail from you to a member of the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education from about six years ago in which you’re are quoted as saying that you saw no choice but for UND to change its nickname. Was that an accurate view of your thoughts at that time?
Kupchella: Well, it is if you consider a fragment of what was really a very thorough, comprehensive consideration of options. We were running scenarios at that time. There was an e-mail that I sent where I used the words of interest. The assumption was we don’t have the support of any tribe in the state or region, and all of them ask that we change it (the Fighting Sioux nickname). And if that were ever to happen, our position would be untenable. Even if we might think it’s still okay and we were doing everything respectfully, it would be really hard to hold that position. However, we had within days of that exchange, a unilateral resolution of support for permission given to us by the Spirit Lake Tribal Council, signed by members of the council that said, “Hey, it’s okay with us if you use our nickname provided that you do it respectfully and some good comes of it.” That took that argument or that scenario off the table because that’s our nearest Sioux tribe. There are only two in the state. At one time, we had the formal approval of the other one and — for who knows what reason — they changed it later. We’re told that it was because of a lobbying group here on campus that went to the tribe and asked for it. That became even more moot in a way because, as reported to us — we have no other way to know — by the chair of the judicial committee of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Council, they did a referendum in six of the eight districts on the reservation and they were unanimously or near-unanimously supportive of the university’s use of the Sioux nickname.
USCHO: So you have reason to believe that there is strong support even on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, which officially opposes UND’s use of the Fighting Sioux nickname?
Kupchella: From that piece of information it would seem to be the case. That’s secondhand. I can’t imagine that the chair of the judicial committee of the council would have any reason to say anything other than what was true. So we accept it as such. And from what it looks like, the tribal council is still officially opposed to our use of the name, but people from the reservation, it would seem, are supportive — at least a great majority of them are.
USCHO: Do you personally hear from American Indians who support UND on this issue?
Kupchella: Sure. I have a whole sheaf of letters over there (gestures toward his desk) from people who either are students here now or who were students here. They say their experience here was very positive. They experienced nothing like any hostility or abuse during their time here. I get students stopping in from time to time. I’ve had groups come in here, both those who oppose the use of the name and those who support it. So the answer to your question is, yes, I hear from American Indian students and people directly all the time on this issue.
USCHO: Will more of them be speaking out publicly in support of it?
Kupchella: For most of them, it appears that this is not a big deal. There are lots of issues. Let’s face it, there’s world peace, hunger, global warming … this isn’t any issue of that kind. It’s far more trivial. Many of them don’t care one way or the other how we use the nickname. As long as we do it respectfully, they’re not for it, they’re not against it. They just don’t really have an opinion. There are some on both sides of the argument who feel strongly. I thought it was interesting that a Fargo Forum poll asked American Indians here in the state if the university were to change its name, how would that affect their support for the university? More than half said it wouldn’t change anything one way or the other. But one in four actually said their support for the university would decrease. They would support the university less if we would change our name to something else. This was a scientific poll.
You didn’t ask me this, but one of the things that I come to this issue with personally is the golden rule. When you decide whether something is the right thing to do, you say “Well, do unto others … ” If someone were to come up to me and say, “Look, I think the Lithuanian people are just wonderful. They helped all the former republics of Soviet Union regain their independence, so I’m going to name my first-born after some Lithuanian patriot or person.” Even if they were to do something I might think is a little different or unique, I would take what they said as a compliment to my ancestors and say, “Thank you very much. I get it. You want to identify with the spirit of a great people, and that’s a good thing.” Then, if there are issues, about how we go about doing it, let’s take them up one at a time and eliminate them if that’s a problem. But there are those who take the view that any use of any Indian nickname is somehow inherently demeaning. I just know that if someone wanted to honor my ancestors — even if they didn’t get it quite right — I would think it’s a wonderful thing.
Sometimes they’ll lump us into all uses of American Indian nicknames and logos. (Cleveland Indians mascot) Chief Wahoo, for example, is a cartoonish, goofy-looking portrayal of an Indian. And they’ll say studies have shown … Well, our logo is not like that. They also will use nicknames like “redskins” and “savages” and lump the Sioux in with all of those and say they’re all wrong. In fact, there some that aren’t and some that are. Those that are should be changed and stopped immediately.
USCHO: In denying UND’s appeals, one of the reasons given by the NCAA is that the nickname and logo create a hostile and abusive atmosphere at other institutions the UND can’t control. Is it reasonable for the NCAA to make UND responsible for potentially racist behavior by fans of other schools? Do you know of any recent examples of UND fans displaying hostile and abusive behavior toward American Indians at the university’s athletic events?
Kupchella: Well, I for one do not think so. We can’t control what people do after they’ve had a couple of beers or if they’re really not that bright to begin with. You have a full range of fan behavior from model to okay and then some that is clearly out of line. Our responsibility is to deal with that whenever we encounter it, and we have. We don’t allow banners that are hostile or derogatory to be brought into our arenas. We don’t allow those kinds of shirts. Both the Alerus Center (where UND plays football) personnel and Engelstad Arena won’t let folks in. What happens at other schools? It’s their responsibility. I think it’s all of our responsibilities to deal with fan behavior within the domain we control. We shouldn’t allow any derogatory reference to schools coming in here regardless of what nickname they happen to have. The American Indians who have been here have a very mature view of this. They say, “Of course you can’t control everything that happens, but we expect you to deal with it when it’s reported.” And we promised that we would.
USCHO: Do you know of any recent examples of UND fans displaying hostile or abusive behavior toward American Indians at any UND-sponsored athletic events.
Kupchella: No, I do not. None has been reported to me. Of course, I attend most of the events and I have not seen any. Now, have there been some confrontations between the pros and the antis on campus and other places? There have been such complaints. Sometimes the debate about whether we should keep or give up the nickname is what gets hot, but I have not had any reports of anything actually inside one of our sports venues.
USCHO: In the last UND appeal that was denied, the NCAA said it was just controlling what was its to control. Does it seems as if what they’re trying to control is something that’s not actually happening at events they do control?
Kupchella: In fact that’s one of our issues with the NCAA is that it’s all hearsay. People, many of whom themselves have not been to a game, say there’s something wrong with how we use the Fighting Sioux nickname and logo. The NCAA is just taking their word for it. We invited the NCAA to come to a couple games and see how we handle the nickname and the logo. I’m confident that if they were to do that, they’d go away satisfied, certainly in the athletic realm, which is their only business, as far as I know.
USCHO: It seemed rather ironic after the West Regional hockey tournament was held at Engelstad Arena, the representative from the NCAA had nothing but good things to say about it.
Kupchella: Yes, it is ironic. I think it was their most profitable regional. And there were nothing but positive comments from the NCAA’s own people here on the ground.
USCHO: There is a core group of faculty and staff on the UND campus who have opposed the university’s use of the Fighting Sioux nickname and logo for many years. They say that they will never drop the issue. Is there any reason to believe that the controversy will end as long as there is such active opposition on campus?
Kupchella: Many of them say they’re opposed because they think the tribes are. Some of them know full well that some of the tribes have registered opposition because they asked them to. So I don’t know what they’d do if all of a sudden all of the tribes said, “Hey, we’ve found a way to accept this use. We’ll continue to monitor it, but we’re okay with it.” What would they do then? I’m sure there are at least some who would say we don’t care. It’s kind of like the NCAA saying that even though the (Mississippi College) Choctaws, the (Utah) Utes and the (Florida State) Seminoles are able to keep their nicknames because they have approval from the tribes, every time they rule on an exemption they say, “We think it’s wrong to stereotype. However, if the tribe wants to give permission, I guess that’s their business.” That’s one of the things we label as arrogant by the NCAA. Instead of saying that if the Indian people themselves say it’s okay and the official governing body says it’s okay, maybe it’s okay. Instead they say, “We think it’s still wrong.” I don’t know how they look at what that permission means. Either they enjoy being the victims of hostility and abuse or they don’t know any better. I don’t know how you place yourself above even the American Indian people in declaring that something is hostile and abusive if they think it’s okay.
USCHO: Does it bother you that a lot of opposition on UND’s campus comes from within your American Indian programs?
Kupchella: Well, yes. It’s not always been that way, of course. Some of them have only recently decided to be against the nickname, which in and of itself says that it must be a matter of subjective choice. Some of them were neutral for a long time. Some even thought it was okay. Ironically, some of them have rushed to support the NCAA which has exempted some Indian nicknames, implying that it must be okay then. We just have to find a way to get the tribes to approve it and then the issue goes away. The problem with supporting the NCAA is that some of the very people here who have the responsibility to recruit American Indians by endorsing what the NCAA has done are basically saying, “Come to UND, but it’s hostile and abusive here.” It’s put them in an awfully untenable position. How do you reconcile inviting or recruiting students to come to what you’ve said is really a hostile and abusive place? I don’t know how they reconcile that in their own minds, but it’s one of the unintended consequences of this whole issue. The NCAA is actually hurting the very people that they think their good intentions are helping.
USCHO: Two of North Dakota’s largest newspapers, the Fargo Forum and the Bismarck Tribune, recently called for UND to change its nickname. On Sunday, Grand Forks Herald publisher Mike Jacobs wrote a column saying that a UND lawsuit against the NCAA wasn’t good for North Dakota’s image. How do you respond to those from within the state who believe that it would be best for UND to drop the Sioux nickname and logo?
Kupchella: The issue on the table currently is the NCAA’s handling of this whole controversy. Everybody’s entitled to an opinion, even people who publish and edit newspapers. Our story is that we picked the nickname in the ’30s to identify with the spirit and determination of a great people. We’ve gone about it — certainly in the time I’ve been here — with a great deal of respect and sensitivity. We have formal written approval to use the name from the nearest Sioux tribe. As far as I’m concerned, case closed. That means that anyone who thinks it should change, it’s just an opinion. That’s it. That’s the argument and that’s how I look at it. I’m always and will forever be amazed at how much interest this rather un-profound issue has among the public and the media. It’s kind of amazing, isn’t it? (Laughs) We’re dealing with the issue and the NCAA now as if it were a separate issue because, in many ways, it is. Punishing student-athletes because someone has a particular opinion is just dead wrong.
But I would hasten to add that we are talking with the tribal leaders throughout the state. We’ve had several good meetings. We have another scheduled for later in July. And on the table are both options: We find a way to keep the nickname and change or tweak it somehow so that everybody finds it acceptable going forward. And we also have on the table changing it. The American Indian leaders are just as cognizant as I am that we want to do it in such a way that it doesn’t make things worse. If we were to change this too abruptly for what appeared to be little reason, relationships between American Indians and non-natives on the upper Great Plains could be impacted negatively for a long time. They’re aware of that, too. So those discussions are very thorough. We’re not adamant about keeping this name for all eternity. It’s under discussion how we can change it to make it more inclusive. What we would not do is change the architecture of the Engelstad Arena, airbrush the word “Sioux” off the jerseys of people depicted in national championship teams in pictures on the walls over there. First, though, we have to exhaust the possibilities for keeping the name in a way that’s acceptable and reasonable to all the tribes. I hasten to add again: we already have permission. We’ve had it for six years. When asked if they want to keep it, the Spirit Lake tribal leaders have asked, “Which word isn’t clear? We passed a resolution and we stand by it.”
USCHO: Is it possible for UND to be a premier institution for American Indians and retain the Fighting Sioux nickname and logo at the same time?
Kupchella: I think so. We have an American Indian Programs Council that’s agreed to work with us to make sure that’s true. They know the nickname/logo issue is there, but they’ve worked as a group with our American Indian programs staff and two vice presidents. They meet regularly to discuss ways in which we can improve our service to American Indian students and people. We all agree that we’re going forward. Keep in mind that all of what we do relative to this nickname and logo under a directive from the State Board of Higher Education. This is actually board policy, a board decision, to use that logo and use the name Fighting Sioux. Our job is to make sure we to it respectfully. But the board decided this, so we obviously have to follow that. They’re the decision-making body in higher education in North Dakota.
USCHO: Because much of your disagreement with the NCAA revolves around how the nickname policy was implemented without membership approval, was there a hope or an expectation that the organization’s membership would rein in the executive committee? Did you expect some reaction from the members about how this was done?
Kupchella: I’d hoped that there would be because obviously if the NCAA can to this to us by executive fiat, who knows what the limits of that kind of action would be? The NCAA prides itself on being a bottom-up organization with a great deal of institutional autonomy. I think all the institutions that are members come to their relationship with the NCAA with that understanding. Whether they know it or not, this is a threat to all of us — no matter what your nickname.
USCHO: Your June 7 letter was addressed to the NCAA and “Dear All.” Was that an attempt to get the membership’s attention and possibly take action to avoid a lawsuit?
Kupchella: We didn’t know whom we were talking to. Was it the executive committee? Was it the council of presidents? Was it an undefined group of staff people at the NCAA? Anybody who’s weighed in on this and was part of the decision, we were addressing it to all of them.
USCHO: Are you hoping that members are paying attention to this and might provide some input?
Kupchella: I haven’t given that a thought, actually. This is an injustice against us and we’re dealing with it as such. It also affects institutions like the University of Illinois, Indiana University of Pennsylvania and several others directly, but we haven’t even looked to them to see what they might do in the way of supporting our position.
USCHO: So you haven’t had discussions with other institutions on the NCAA list?
Kupchella: I have not personally, but some of our people have talked to some of their people. Each situation is somewhat different.
USCHO: What’s the next step? When will the lawsuit be filed? Will it be in state or federal court? Will UND seek an injunction against the NCAA until the lawsuit is settled? Is there any chance that other schools on the NCAA list will join UND in the lawsuit?
Kupchella: I’ll just refer all that to the North Dakota attorney general (Wayne Stenehjem. That’s now in his hands.
USCHO: What do you think of the bill introduced in Congress that would prevent the NCAA from meddling in the affairs of its members on non-athletic issues? Have you had any discussions about that?
Kupchella: Not really. (North Dakota Congressman) Earl Pomeroy called me one day to indicate it was going to happen. Later, I saw that he indicated it wasn’t a good idea to go forward with that bill. I haven’t kept up with the details of what’s in the bill. I did see a copy of the original posting and it looked to me like it had a good basis for maybe heading off some future antitrust action by the NCAA, but I haven’t really followed it.
USCHO: So you haven’t really established a position as to whether UND would support that bill or not?
Kupchella: The version I saw originally, we certainly would support. It told the NCAA to tend to the business of athletics and make a run at solving some of those intractable problems before you go venturing off into social engineering. So, yeah, we certainly hold that position.
USCHO: One final question: When you accepted the job to be president of UND back in 1999, did you ever think that you would spend as much time as you have on this issue?
Kupchella: There’s an assumption in your question that it’s lots of time, and it really isn’t. It seems like a lot more than it is because of the media and public interest in it. Of course, you could argue that any time spent on it is unfortunate. I don’t happen to believe that. I think this is one of those classic issues that it’s kind of not altogether bad to have it to sharpen minds on. Where’s the boundary between social justice and political correctness? There are fundamental questions here such as: How big an opposition group you need before you change something? When does the majority not have control even when it’s so large? These are some fundamental, interesting issues. There are those who say that it’s disruptive of classrooms here. Hey, we’re educating students about how to deal with a world that gets kind of fuzzy around the edges, and not all the answers are clear. There are good people with good arguments on both sides of almost anything you call an issue. So it’s not bad at all that we — together — get to spend some time on this one.