Working group considers “The Missionaries” with community survey

Ellen Ivens-Duran

Students, staff, faculty and all recorded Whitman alumni received a survey on Wednesday, Feb. 10, about the college’s mascot: the Missionary. This survey is part of the latest effort to determine whether or not Whitman ought to keep or abandon its traditional mascot, which hearkens back to the college’s namesakes Marcus and Narcissa Whitman.

The survey was crafted by a working group composed of students, faculty and members of the administration that was appointed in December by President Kathy Murray. The survey will remain open for all of February and the group will meet to consider the results in early March. President Murray is anticipated to make a decision based on the group’s feedback by the end of this academic year. Members of the advisory committee represent diverse interests from alumni, to athletics, to the Associated Students of Whitman College.

Many interest groups would be affected by removing the Missionaries as a mascot. The survey is meant to allow a wide variety of people to give their input on the issue. Dean Snider, Whitman’s Athletic Director who has been a member of the Whitman community for 20 years, estimates that the survey will be distributed to about 19,000 people: 16,000 via email and another 3,000 via postcard. The survey results will be analyzed by the working group, who will then make a recommendation to the president.

“It’s not going to be a process that weighs heavily [on] people who give to the college as opposed to people who may eventually give or aren’t in a position to give. So it’s going to be a process that listens to all the voices. And the question we’re asked is, ‘Is the mascot appropriate for today?’” Snider said. “It’s not just the older voices that have engaged as Whitman Missionaries for a longer period of time. It’s newer, younger voices. It’s anticipating what our prospective students’ voices might sound like years from now.”

In that spirit, there are three student representatives on the working group. One, sophomore Cassandra Otero, is a delegate from the Indigenous Peoples’ Education and Culture Club (IPECC). While she is open to hearing the results of the survey, she represents a group that believes the mascot should be changed.

“Personally, I would like to change it as a member of IPECC. Our mission is  to create an environment where indigenous peoples can feel safe and have their opinions be heard and expressed, and that can’t happen with the current mascot,” Otero said. “The mascot is racist and it commemorates white supremacy, and that’s not okay. It’s been way too long and we need to change it.”

Other students also experience discomfort about the symbolism behind the Missionary. Caroline Bauwens, a first-year ASWC senator, was instrumental in bringing up the question of changing the mascot for administrative review. As a result of discomfort with the mascot, Bauwens and two other ASWC representatives, first-year Ben Cosgrove and sophomore Emma Bishop, crafted a survey that was distributed to students last fall.

“Mostly it was a lot of planning, thinking what could we do, who could we talk to, who could we reach out to, how [could] we contact alumni,” Bauwens said. “Because we’re just three students and we just wanted to get someone’s attention, which we did, thank god. We got the right person’s attention.”

Now that the process has been taken over by an official working group, Bauwens sees the ASWC survey as a stepping stone rather than a way to answer the question the group is considering.

“We thought about possibly releasing the results, which were really positive for changing the mascot, but we also didn’t want to give the students false hope if we released the results of the survey,” Bauwens said.

Kazi Joshua, the Vice President of Inclusion and Diversity, sits on the committee due to his interest in promoting equity and community at Whitman. Although the decision ultimately rests with President Murray, Joshua feels strongly about making a thoughtful recommendation based on survey data.

“I think in the end, in the final analysis, this is more about the future of Whitman than the past of Whitman. And I don’t think that it is some kind of calculus, it’s not a spreadsheet, I think that at some point there has to be a judgment that is being made given the questions that are asked,” Joshua said. “The exercise of trying to figure out where we are today, and where we are going and the changing conditions in the society–that is exactly what we should be [doing] as an institution of higher learning.”