On October 28th, the inaugural meeting of Transy Speaks was held in the Campus Center. The question that was to be debated was whether Transylvania University should retire its current moniker, the Pioneer.
In recent years, there has been pushback against mascots that present disparaging portrayals of indigenous groups. The Washington Football team recently retired their long-standing controversial mascot, and Cleveland’s major league baseball team officially changed their name to the Guardians at the end of the 2021 baseball season. There have also been calls for teams such as the Kansas City Chiefs and the Atlanta Braves to change names. Amid these calls for change, some have questioned Transylvania’s mascot. Despite the athletic mascot being Raf the bat since 2017, Transy’s sports teams still go by the name “Pioneers.” Some have argued that this moniker is disrespectful to indigenous groups, as it signifies a group of people who forcibly removed Native Americans from their homes in the name of “Manifest Destiny.” Thus Transy Speaks, a new student-run organization aimed at promoting debate between students, decided to take up the topic.
To open the debate, a sophomore student who wished to remain unnamed argued that the mascot should remain unchanged, as the term “pioneer” does not necessarily have to refer to the settler colonialists of our country’s past. The student said, “We work and attend Transylvania to deepen our knowledge and understanding of the world, so we may share it with the larger community around us. Transylvania produces educated students to contribute to and change society. One might observe that we are pioneers.” The student argued that Transylvania has a long history of pioneering, specifically citing the fact that Transylvania was the first college west of the Alleghenies. They admitted that the actions of the pioneers who expanded west were wrong, but argued that their actions should not taint the word pioneer itself. The student claimed that by keeping the moniker of Pioneer, Transylvania could, as they put it, “show what a term like this should stand for.”
Next, sophomore Ysa Leon, while agreeing with the previous student that the term pioneer was not necessarily a bad one, the historical context of America’s westward expansion makes the mascot insensitive towards indigenous groups. They said, “I think that the campus community would benefit from a statement from the university’s administration considering the past connotations of being a pioneer.” They noted that while pioneers don’t necessarily have to be linked to America’s westward expansion, up until recent years the university used a logo that prominently featured an archetypal image of a pioneer, irreversibly linking Transylvania’s mascot to that time period.
Leon supported changing the mascot for this reason, saying that “it would go a long way for indigenous people and people of color on campus.”
Pro and anti pioneer arguments largely fell along these lines for the rest of the meeting, with those in favor of keeping the mascot arguing that the word pioneer could be broadly applied as people that are the first to do something, and those in favor of changing the mascot arguing that it was impossible to separate the pioneer from America’s past abuses of indigenous groups.
Many in attendance, including alumni Seth Wyatt, argued that it was difficult to use a pioneer as a Transylvania mascot without idealizing America’s westward expansion, as Transylvania was the first university west of the Allegheny mountains and was very purposefully built on indigenous land, as well as the existence of the old pioneer logo. The majority of people in the room agreed that the old logo, as well as the idealization of manifest destiny in general, was inappropriate and that changing the athletic mascot to Raf the bat was the correct decision. Some argued even further that having a bat in the athletic logo and the Transylvania mascot not matching it didn’t make sense, and that the university should fully commit to a bat mascot.
This is not the first time the question of the Transylvania mascot has been discussed. In March of 2016, Transylvania announced a vote to decide between two new mascots to replace the pioneer logo, a horse named Cassius and a bear named Boone. The move was met with significant pushback by alumni who wished to keep the pioneer logo, and neither choice was able to gain a majority of votes. The logo would later be changed to Raf the bat in 2017, which remains the athletic mascot to this day.
There has been no word from the Transylvania administration that they plan to change the mascot anytime soon.
Despite likely not leading to any definitive action, the founder of Transy Speaks was proud of the discussion that the organization was able to facilitate. He said, “higher education is all about thinking critically and being willing to challenge your own views and assumptions, and that’s what Transy Speaks is here to promote.”