VALPARAISO — Students filed into Valparaiso's University Auditorium, ready to discuss whether it was appropriate to continue using a polarizing mascot. Once all voices were heard, the question was put to a vote by the student body.
The year was 1941 and Valparaiso’s community went through spirited debate about the “Uhlan” mascot because the name may have implied connection to Nazi Germany. The school eventually dropped the mascot and spent nearly a year searching for a new identity before settling on “Crusaders” in early 1942.
The Valparaiso Crusader stood for nearly 80 years before it was officially removed by the school last Thursday citing imagery connected with hate groups, including the Ku Klux Klan. The decision put an end to several years of ambiguity and set off a cascade of emotions on both sides.
While proponents of the change are excited about the possibilities ahead, opponents of the decision have expressed a variety of frustrations, including lack of transparency, a belief that the school has caved into “cancel culture” and anger that, unlike the debate in 1941, there has been no outlet for discussion outside of a survey that was released last month.
The school cited a task force made up of representatives from the campus community that sent out a survey that received nearly 7,700 responses. Of those responses, more than 80% identified "Valpo" as the most prominent brand association, while 2.5% identified the "Crusader," according to Valparaiso Chief Communications Officer Nicole Niemi.
“To have this happen now, in the middle of cancel culture, it feels like (the administration) didn’t really think it through on their own,” former Valparaiso professor Dot Nuechterlein said. “They just gave in to the pressure without talking it out. That’s part of what upsets people in my generation. We’re used to having free and frank conversation.”
Nuechterlein graduated from Valparaiso in 1960 and was hired at the school in 1981 where she worked in a variety of positions until 2012. Since her retirement, she has continued in her role as the scorekeeper for the Valparaiso men’s basketball program.
“The word ‘Crusader’ has always been something I associated with positive connotations,” Nuechterlein said. “The mascot doesn’t represent the university per se. It represents the sports team. Now what do sports teams get out of the mascot? They get motivation to do their best. My generation of alumni are really upset because they do not understand what the big deal is.”
While the retirement of the mascot was officially announced last week, the wheels have been in motion long before Interim President Colette Irwin-Knott or student body President Kaitlyn Steinhiser took office. Irwin-Knott and Steinhiser were featured in a video released by the school announcing the change and the pair have been criticized on social media and message boards for overstepping their bounds.
Opponents point to Irwin-Knott’s role as interim president and question why a decision of this level would be made by someone with a temporary position. It should be noted that Irwin-Knott has been a member of Valparaiso’s Board of Directors since 2009.
ValpoAthletics.com stopped using the Crusader nickname in stories that were written to promote the athletic teams at the beginning of the 2018-19 seasons. Valparaiso Athletic Director Mark LaBarbera confirmed in a podcast interview with Union Street Hoops in December of 2018 that the school was choosing to emphasize the “Valpo” brand as opposed to Crusaders and that it would continue to use the Valpo shield imagery. He also made a comment on the relationship between the school’s mascot to its athletic teams.
"(Changing the mascot) is not a conversation that athletics is part of,” LaBarbera said in 2018. “It is not the place of the athletics department to decide how the university wants to be identified.”
LaBarbera reiterated that same point last week when he spoke to The Times regarding the decision to drop the Crusader mascot.
“The way the university chooses to represent itself is a decision that needs to be made by the broader community,” LaBarbera said. “The athletics community needs to then figure out the best way to actualize that.”
A disconnect that some former Valparaiso athletes have felt in the last week has been between the decision to change the nickname and the fact it was made by people who didn’t compete in athletics. Valparaiso Hall of Fame wide receiver and Whiting native Rob Giancola said he felt that losing the Crusader mascot was like “having a death in the family.”
“I see the mascot more of something that relates to athletics,” Giancola said. “We all represent Valparaiso, but you don’t put ‘Crusaders’ on your resume, you put ‘Valparaiso University.’ There are different levels of representation. I just don’t know how it offends anyone. I’m not religious and I don’t understand all of that, but I haven’t heard one person say they are offended by ‘Crusaders.’ There are different definitions for everything.”
Valparaiso Theology Professor Dr. Matthew Becker is on the other side of the debate as someone who is in support of changing the nickname. Becker has studied the Crusades and has long questioned the use of the word “Crusaders” to promote the school.
“Anyone who knows about the history of the Crusades knows that it’s not a pleasant story,” Becker said. “The fourth crusade, there’s just no justification for it whatsoever. It was a wild frenzy of attack in the name of Christ and it’s just so contradictory to the message of the cross. I don’t see this as cancel culture, I see this as trying to be more true to what I see of an important Lutheran teaching. The teaching of the cross isn't about conquest. Luther thought the crusades were a total opposite of the Christian message.”
After Valparaiso decided to drop “Uhlans” in 1941, the school took nearly a year before deciding on the new nickname of “Crusaders.” Then-President O.P. Kretzmann announced the new nickname in the Jan. 22, 1942, edition of The Torch, Valparaiso’s student newspaper.
“It connotes the courage and devotion to ideals for which the University stands,” Kretzmann said. “In addition, it is a constant reminder to the public that Valparaiso University is proud of its religious background.”
Once frustrations subside about the way Valparaiso announced the decision to move on from the Crusader nickname, the next step is to decide a new nickname for the school. Incoming president Jose Padilla will take office next month and he is expected to lead a committee to decide on a new name.
There remains debate as to whether the nickname should be seen as representative of the school as a whole or if athletes should feel a stronger ownership over the name. There is also seemingly a debate between whether or not the nickname should have a religious connotation as Kretzmann alluded to in his statement.
“I don’t know if you can match the theology of the cross with athletic contests,” Becker said. “I am a full supporter of college athletics. I know some faculty are not. I wish there was a way we could match school spirit without being militaristic.”