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Brand Values

A business decision led an institution to explore the ethics of the names and symbols it used—and determine that a dog was its best mend

By Robert Graham

 

 

In May 2014, Eastern New Mexico University asked a tough question: Were we engaging in cultural appropriation? We weren't known as the Redskins or Savages nor were we represented by a disparaging image. ENMU was not one of the 18 colleges and universities identified in 2005 when the NCAA issued its policy prohibiting institutions using "hostile and abusive racial/ethnic/national origin mascots, nicknames or imagery" from participating in its championship tournaments.

But in 1981, ENMU's women's athletic teams adopted the name Zias and the Zia sun symbol—a circle with four sets of four sun rays pointing in the four cardinal directions. The image is a sacred religious symbol of the Zia Pueblo, a small Native American community about 65 miles southwest of Santa Fe, New Mexico. The moniker was intended to distinguish the women's teams from the men's, which had been the Greyhounds since ENMU opened in 1934, and to honor New Mexico traditions. Athletics linked the two symbols by placing a running greyhound over the center of the Zia sun. For a time, the university also used the Zia sun symbol—adapting it by placing a capital "E" in the modified symbol's center on a green background. The Zia "E," as it was known, dotted ENMU's website until mid-2002 and appeared on university materials and merchandise such as stationery and pennants.

 

 

The Zia sun symbol has been synonymous with the state since 1925, when it became the only image on the New Mexico flag. The symbol itself was co-opted from a stolen piece of Zia Pueblo pottery. But once the Zia sun sign became part of the state's official flag, the symbol fell subject to trademark laws preventing the registration of a logo that "comprises the flag or coat of arms or other insignia of the United States, or of any State or municipality."

Since the symbol could not be trademarked, businesses and organizations used it freely in the ensuing years. You can find the symbol throughout New Mexico, on everything from coffee bags and beer cans to road signs and the state's official license plates.

The trouble with trademarks

ENMU confronted this issue because it initiated a trademark and licensing program to protect and control the university's distinctive marks—a marketing best practice institutions have implemented for decades. The project was viewed as an opportunity to get ENMU's brand in order—to align and possibly refresh our visual identity. It was not the first time, however, that the institution had pondered its use of the Zia sun symbol.

In the 1990s, ENMU hired a public relations firm to study the issue. The finding: "The Zia logo is overused in New Mexico. It is not distinctive to ENMU. If ENMU wants better positioning of the university and its programs in New Mexico, it should design a logo that better differentiates it from its competition. The consistent use of the Zia logo and the color green have helped associate it with ENMU. But recognition and recall of the logo is not high."

The symbol screamed New Mexico, but that didn't make ENMU stand out. Supporters of the symbol contended that its ubiquity honored New Mexico and the people of the Zia Pueblo. But ENMU had never asked the Zia Pueblo's permission to use the tribe's name or its symbol. The ethical and moral implications of using them were not factors in the original report. At the time, no one had ever requested permission to use the Zia sun. And the Zia Pueblo were working to change that.

In the mid-1990s, the Zia Pueblo blocked two companies' attempts to register trademarks containing the Zia sun. Later that decade, they unsuccessfully asked New Mexico to pay the tribe $74 million—$1 million for every year the Zia sun appeared on the state flag through 1999. The tribe's efforts led the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to create the Native American Tribal Insignia Database, which helps tribes prevent other entities from registering their symbols as trademarks. (The Zia sun cannot be included in the listing because it appears on the New Mexico flag.)

In 2000, Southwest Airlines asked the Zia Pueblo for permission to paint the sun symbol on one of its planes. Many viewed the request, the first by a commercial entity, as an act of fairness—and a signal that the attention the Zia's brought to their cause in the 1990s was gaining traction. The tribe granted Southwest permission to use the symbol in exchange for a contribution to the Zia scholarship fund. At least 20 other businesses and organizations have since followed a similar path.

As the university embarked on a trademark and licensing program in 2014, we had to consider what images capture ENMU's campus identity, which ones should represent it, and whether we could protect them. A preliminary internal report re-introduced the findings from the 1990s but also noted the historical experience of the Zia Pueblo and treatment of the sun symbol. Was it right for the institution to continue using the Zia sun? Was it ethical? Was ENMU engaging in cultural appropriation?

 

 

Know better, do better

As we began discussing these ethical issues, the National Congress of American Indians passed a resolution in June 2014 recognizing the Pueblo of Zia's cultural property rights to the sun symbol. The Zia people wanted organizations to ask permission to use the symbol and to use it respectfully. They also wanted to prevent it from being used commercially.

When the university began using the Zia name and sun symbol in 1981, most people were unaware of the sign's sacred meaning. When we began the trademark process, we knew better—and we had a choice. ENMU could continue to use the name and symbol, likely without challenge from the Zia Pueblo, but that didn't mean the university should. Taking this route would prevent us from protecting part of ENMU's visual identity since we couldn't register the Zia symbol. We could try to modify it to meet trademark and licensing requirements, but that would be costly and difficult. What was the university's obligation? If we continued using the name and symbol, would future generations of students, staff, and alumni view ENMU as participating in cultural appropriation? How would stakeholders react if we stopped using the name and symbol?

The university formed a logo and institutional branding committee, with staff representatives from athletics, communication services, and the president's office. I led the committee while also representing alumni relations. One of our members had a unique and important perspective on this issue. Jennifer Poyer played basketball and volleyball as a Zia in the 1990s and became the university's most celebrated athlete—ENMU retired both of her jerseys in 2012. But as ENMU's coordinator of design and content, Poyer would help enforce the new trademark and licensing guidelines. At first, Poyer had reservations about dropping the Zia name, but her viewpoint changed when she learned more about the cultural appropriation concern. She believed the university could serve as an example to others.

Our group recommended discontinuing use of the Zia name and symbol in favor of all the athletics teams using the Greyhounds name and logo. The sun symbol was all over the state. We couldn't use the mark to distinguish ourselves, and we couldn't register and protect it. With all the Zia Pueblo had done to make people aware that the sun symbol is sacred to them, continuing to use it seemed wrong. It was a business decision that had ethical implications—and one that ran the risk of upsetting stakeholders. ENMU President Steven Gamble wanted to know how the campus community would respond to the change.

There goes the sun

To address people's concerns, share information, and build consensus, we organized a series of presentations and discussions on campus. We met with more than 500 people and approximately 20 campus organizations. ENMU's Office of Alumni Relations emailed alumni about the proposal to switch from the Zia name and symbol to the Greyhound name and logo. Of the 11,000 emails sent, we attained an 18 percent open rate. The majority of respondents supported discontinuation, but several expressed concern.

Some opponents said the Zia sun symbol distinguished the women's teams from the men's teams. People argued that wearing the Zia name or sun symbol showed solidarity with the state of New Mexico. Others said the university was doing this to financially gain from licensing its products. (It was estimated that ENMU would earn about $10,000 annually in royalties from trademarking its logo.) Some accused the university of ignoring input from alumni and the people who live in ENMU's home city of Portales. One vocal opponent was an alumnus who was also a member of the local press.

Interestingly, one of the criticisms was that we hadn't consulted the Zia Pueblo about the change. I remedied this by contacting the tribe's attorney to ask whether it was more respectful for ENMU to request permission to continue using the sun symbol or to stop using it altogether. The answer was a no-brainer: Stop.

The opinions of ENMU's women athletes were crucial to this process. Members of teams past and present identified as Zias, so this change would affect them more than other stakeholders.

ENMU's women athletes expressed a variety of viewpoints. The basketball program felt that separate mascots perpetuated a kind of gender segregation. Softball players said that they had wanted to identify as Greyhounds for some time. A few volleyball players from outside New Mexico said that they had been confused by the two mascots when they first visited campus on recruiting trips. Cross-country and track and field athletes, whose teams were more integrated with their male counterparts, were interested in the broader context of the reasons for discontinuation. Many soccer players expressed reservations, intimating that opposing fans might refer to them by a term used for female dogs. Nearly every team, however, favored uniting under the Greyhounds name.

The Alumni Board of Directors voted 29-1 in support of discontinuing usage of the sun symbol at its March 2015 meeting. The alumni board and student, faculty, staff, and professional senates each passed resolutions supporting discontinuation. In its April 2015 elections, the student body voted on the issue—67 percent supported discontinuation, 84 percent backed the move to have just one athletics logo, and 87 percent believed that referring to ENMU's female athletes as Greyhounds would not be degrading.

Finally, in late April 2015, almost a year after ENMU started the trademark and licensing process, the Board of Regents unanimously voted to discontinue using the Zia name and sun symbol. Before the procedural vote, each regent explained his or her reasoning. One noted the need for gender parity rather than segregating the identity of the men's and women's teams; another noted ENMU's need to have a discernable, consistent brand. One regent cited the university's due diligence on the issue, which helped inform the board's decision. Another board member highlighted the morality and ethics of discontinuation.

It's not over until the dog is done

By May 2015, ENMU was moving away from the Zia name and symbol. Criticism and hurt feelings followed the decision, a reality familiar to many institutions that have undergone mascot changes. But going forward, the immediate question from the women's teams was whether they would be known as the Lady Greyhounds. University officials looked to peer institutions and found varying approaches. The University of Tennessee, for example, dropped "lady" from all of its women's sports programs in 2014, except for women's basketball in recognition of Pat Summitt's success as the college hoops coach with the most wins all-time. Ultimately, for equitable reasons, ENMU decided to simply use Greyhounds for both athletic programs. If the men weren't going to be called the Gentleman Greyhounds, then the women didn't need a modifier either.

As we neared the end of the trademarking and licensing process, we thought we were home free—until we submitted our greyhound dog design for final trademark approval. Campus lore says that the Greyhound buses that zoomed along nearby Highway 70 led to ENMU's greyhound mascot in the 1930s. Now that the university sought to register its brand marks, Greyhound Lines wanted ENMU to modify the logo to distinguish it from the bus company's design. Compared with the institutional identity and cultural appropriation issues, tweaking our mascot to make it distinctive was easy. The communication services office revised the design, rendering the greyhound more muscular, giving it stronger features—bigger paws, a larger head, and a thicker torso—and adding a green and white border around the animal's body.

It takes time for a significant change to work its way through a system. We're dealing with things that haven't yet (or may never be) changed. The university seal, for instance, still bears the Zia sun symbol from the state flag. But the institution's Zia sun has set, and our new dog is experiencing its day—and marking a new chapter in university history.

 

 

Managing Change

Higher education news coverage has shown that our institution is not alone in needing to address questions of culture, identity, and history. We gleaned essential insights about implementing institutional change during this process. The saying is true: People don't like change. But committing to "business as usual" today makes future transformation even harder. Here are three lessons I learned from this experience.

Embrace discomfort. Answering questions about cultural appropriation at ENMU pushed our community to confront sensitive subjects. The embrace of discomfort should be an intellectual standard for institutional excellence. Institutions of all types are being challenged about their history and treatment of people. Educational institutions should face these challenges head-on. They are not easy conversations, but they are necessary to understanding complex histories that often have roots in injustice and exclusion. Considering an issue too taboo to discuss reinforces the offending privilege and makes it difficult to find workable solutions.

Lead by example. Colleges and universities contribute to students' holistic and professional success. Ideally, they also help advance the thinking and experiences of their employees, alumni, donors, corporate partners, and peer institutions. At a time when the public's trust in institutions is faltering, it is essential that colleges and universities model ethical business conduct. One reason for institutional distrust, I believe, stems from celebrating safety and mediocrity and an unwillingness to take uncomfortable or unpopular stances. Higher education institutions have an opportunity to lead on issues. It's a responsibility their leaders should welcome.

Doing the right thing means listening before acting. Discontinuing ENMU's use of the Zia name and the sun symbol was a business decision, but it came down to much more than numbers. The institution's place in the community—both its hometown and home state—and its relationship with stakeholders played a critical role in the conversations we held over the course of 11 months. The feedback we received guided ENMU to resolve this issue in a way that helped the institution and its constituents proudly move forward.

–RG

About the Author Robert Graham

Robert Graham is Director of Alumni relations at Eastern New Mexico University

 

 

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