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UND president wants Sioux nickname mandate repealed

Robert Kelley

GRAND FORKS - At the conclusion of last week's meeting of the state Board of Higher Education in Minot, UND President Robert Kelley approached Grant Shaft, the board member who has taken the lead on the roiling Fighting Sioux nickname controversy.

"He has been the principal spokesperson on this," Kelley said. "I asked if he would object to my speaking out now. He said he wouldn't."

And so Kelley did, accepting an invitation Monday to discuss the nickname issue by telephone on an area radio program and declaring that he believes the North Dakota Legislature should reconsider the law passed earlier this year requiring UND to retain the nickname and logo.

Events of recent days had persuaded him "to come right out and say that it's time now for us to move beyond the name and logo issue for the success of the university and for the success of our student athletes."

Kelley was asked later Monday whether he was saying he wants the Legislature to repeal the law.

"Yes," he said.

"The university is in an impossible position because of a law that puts us out on a cliff," he said in a Grand Forks Herald interview in his office. Facing a state board directive to retire the nickname and a state law mandating that it continue, "the university is caught between those two," he said. "For the university to go forward, these conflicting issues need to be resolved."

"We're coming down to the end game now. I feel acutely that my voice needs to be heard for the university."

Kelley's comments drew a sharp response from Rep. Al Carlson, R-Fargo, who as majority leader sponsored the nickname bill and shepherded it through the House.

Carlson said it's not a new position for Kelley. "From the very first day, I believe he was promised ... he would never have to deal (as president) with the Sioux name," Carlson said Monday afternoon on the Scott Hennen show on KNOX Radio in Grand Forks.

Objecting to Kelley calling for repeal of the state nickname law before a planned meeting between NCAA and North Dakota leaders, Carlson said "the well has been poisoned many times by people at the university, setting us up for failure."

He also intimated that leaders of the Big Sky Conference were encouraged by Kelley or others at UND to raise concerns about the nickname and what the controversy could mean for UND's admission to the conference next year.

"Where does that come from?" Carlson asked, referring to the Big Sky raising its concerns "all of a sudden," adding that "we are being worked on by people at the university."

Kelley has denied that he sought such an expression of concern from Big Sky representatives, just as he denied a report during the legislative session that he had encouraged the Summit League, then a potential UND home, to make similar statements.

After his morning radio comments, Kelley said that the continuing uncertainty and relentless conflict over the nickname persuaded him to speak out, especially "when I began to realize we were in jeopardy of losing our conference affiliation. That was the straw that broke the camel's back for me. There's only one road to go down."

The fight over the Fighting Sioux is "affecting the reputation of the university," Kelley said. "This is not the reputation I want for the University of North Dakota.

"I understand the passions behind the name and logo. I really do. I've tried to be a good listener, to hear all the pros and cons of keeping the name. But we have organizations drawing a line in the sand, and I believe now we are in a position we can't afford to be in.

"We need a resolution, and the resolution has to be the retirement of the name and logo."

Kelley had signaled his growing frustration with the dragging controversy in a conversation with the Herald before last Thursday's board meeting in Minot, saying UND was "at the cliff's edge" because of the potential consequences for UND athletics.

He said he'd like to see "quick action" to resolve the issue, preferably by the Legislature but alternatively by Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem or the state board itself.

Stenehjem or the board could challenge the constitutionality of the nickname law, "but there are more problems with that," Kelley said Monday. "That could continue what I see as an unhealthy tension between the state board and some of the voices in the Legislature.

"The legislative leadership could on its own initiative review the situation and strike down the law."

A series of events led to the past few days' unfolding drama.

The Big Sky Conference, which UND hopes to join next year, expressed serious concerns about the nickname in a letter to Kelley earlier this month, noting that when UND applied for membership the Big Sky presidents thought the name issue was "settled."

Meanwhile, Carlson said he wanted to pursue a face-to-face meeting with the NCAA to explain why North Dakota favors retaining the nickname and disputes the athletic association's characterization of it as "hostile and abusive."

Carlson said last week, and again Monday, that he still believes the NCAA can be moved off its anti-nickname position.

"I'm looking forward to the meeting with the NCAA," he told Hennen. "Sometime in July, we're going to go down and have a heart-to-heart with those folks."

But the NCAA, which has given Kelley's office two dates in late July when it would receive a North Dakota delegation, released a statement Friday declaring that it "has no intention of changing its position" and that sanctions will apply if the name and logo are still in use after Aug. 15.

On the Fargo radio talk show Monday, Kelley said legislators should take up the nickname law during a planned November special session for legislative redistricting. The law is set to take effect in mid-August.

Carlson said "that's not even on the table yet," and the meeting with the NCAA should precede any talk of legislative reconsideration.

In addition to the pro­spective NCAA-North Dakota meeting in late July, another point on the calendar may be a factor: a scheduled October meeting of the Big Sky Conference presidents, at which UND's membership application could again be reviewed.

Kelley said in Monday's Herald interview that he had been asked several times to participate on the radio program he participated in but had declined in part due to the press of university business and in part because he had agreed to let Shaft take the lead in responding to media questions concerning the nickname.

Asked whether he chose to speak out on a radio program based in Fargo, Carlson's home turf, Kelley said that played no part.

He said his office would continue trying to arrange a meeting between the NCAA leadership and a North Dakota mission that likely would include Carlson, other legislative and executive branch leaders, members of the state board and himself.

"I don't expect the NCAA to change its mind at all," he said. "They have been very consistent. But I believe there is some value in the legislative leadership being able to feel they did everything they could to save the name and the logo. We know what the (NCAA's) answers are going to be, but I think it's right to have that conversation."

Kelley said he talked with Sen. Mac Schneider, D-Grand Forks, who last week issued a call for the Legislature to reconsider the nickname law, but they did not discuss the chances of that happening.

"I don't have a feel for that, whether the situation has changed since final passage," he said. "I don't know if any minds have been changed. Clearly, I would hope that they (legislators) would see the picture differently now."

In general conversations, "I think there is a growing sense that this situation does not position the university in a forward-looking place."

He said he "would like to be able to tell the presidents of the Big Sky Conference in October that we have a process in place ... that the name and logo will no longer be a detriment to our affiliation with the Big Sky Conference."

Chuch Haga writes for the Grand Forks Herald