Campus Mascots in the Union: Fostering Tradition, Community, and Opportunity

Mascots can do wonders toward building image and sculpting long-term value in branding. In and around student unions they can serve as landmarks representative of campus culture and tradition. The placement of a mascot can create a unique environment often designed to build community through connection with historic representations and associated traditions. 

That’s not to say a mascot is necessarily free of contention, criticism, or even controversy. Stereotypical imagery in the form of mascots related to identity has led to lawsuits, mascot boycotts and replacements, and student activism. Some recent research has shown that stereotypical imagery has a negative effect on charitable donations and inclusion on campuses, while other social scientists have noted that in some cases institutions have advanced social justice with respect to a legacy of mascot-related stereotyping “only to the point that it is no longer convenient or in the best interests of the institution.” 

But if your mascot is an alligator, a huskie, yellow jacket, terrapin, horned frog, or an elephant, your union and institution have likely steered clear from the path of controversy, and in many cases, may have recognized that broadening the scope of marketing and deployment of a mascot is an opportunity to build campus and external community. 

That’s exactly what a number of student unions have done by creating permanent mascot-centered selfie-sites, by collaborating on mascot trails and scavenger hunts that run through entire campuses and communities, and by creating alternative mascots that address diversity and inclusivity.  

So when an opportunity arrived for the University of Kansas Memorial Union to reimagine its use of the school’s historic Jayhawk image as a force for building community, a union-wide planning committee went to work. The year-long project aimed at what Ernest L. Boyer described in Campus Life: In Search of Community, as a “celebrative community, one in which the heritage of the institution is remembered and where rituals … affirm tradition and build loyalties on campus.” 

When a building project along Jayhawk Boulevard at Kansas required elevation changes to prevent flooding and meet American Disabilities Act codes, the construction morphed into a campaign to reenvision a required renovation of the adjacent Kansas Union’s plaza. Union staff and students saw the project as an opportunity to bolster the union as a cultural gateway by creating a new landmark centered on the history and evolution of a mascot that was nearly 110 years old. 

The Kansas Union already held a strong cultural presence on campus, with bronze plaques, institutional relics, and history panels on all six floors, all in addition to the Jennings Collection of more than 1,000 Jayhawk collectibles in the building. There’s the Old Tooter display of the original power plant whistle that signaled the end of each class session, and the shiny blue, red, and yellow Jayhawk statue at the union’s entrance. 

So when planning team members representing every union department—building services, events, the bookstore, dining, marketing, and programs—began work, they made a cognizant effort to create a newly realized space that would intertwine culture, tradition, and place, and they used research and history to support their plan. Marketing included direct references to a section of ACUI’s Role of the College Union Statement that notes the importance of an intent to and mission “providing gathering spaces to encourage formal and informal community interactions” and cultivating “an enduring connection to the institution.” 

They referenced George H. Kuh and Elizabeth Whitt’s 1988 book The Invisible Tapestry: Cultures of American Colleges and Universities, that “[C]ulture is carried and reflected by academic program, social environment, and artifacts such as language, ceremonials, stories, and heroes.” In this case, the principal artifact was to be the mythical Jayhawk, and it would be used to heighten a sense of cultural and environmental presence. 

First, they jumped on the opportunity to create a theme behind the mascot-centric plaza renovation, taking into account the history of the Jayhawk and its six different manifestations over more than 100 years. Then, with a play on the presence of an immediate neighbor to the union’s plaza, the university’s natural history museum, the “Evolution of the Jayhawk” theme was born. 

Design and construction of the new plaza allowed for each of six Jayhawk manifestations (1912, 1920, 1923, 1941, and 1946) to be displayed in statuary on date-inscribed pedestals. To build interest and intrigue, six eggs were mounted in advance at the plaza, with the largest centrally located, displaying the message: “Hatching March Seventh!” The date intentionally corresponded with the first known media depiction of the Jayhawk on that date 110 years earlier. 

While the plaza project itself had been funded, the expense of creating six Jayhawk statues had not. Working with the university’s endowment association, outreach was made to known supporters of the Kansas Union, James and Mary Ellen Ascher Sr., who had donated $130,000 in 2013 to make the Kansas Union the permanent home of the 1,000-piece collection of Kansas memorabilia. The Aschers contributed the nearly $250,000 cost of casting the six bronze Jayhawks, and in return the plaza now carries their name. 

Earlier this year the project’s Facebook page peaked at 2,500 followers before the dedication event, which also coincided with the union program board’s weekly “Tea at Three” hospitality event that regularly draws hundreds of students for free tea and snacks. That event was moved to the plaza and the union’s art gallery opened its own “Evolution of the Jayhawk” exhibit in tandem with dedication day. 

By the day of the dedication the statues had been secured on pedestals and covered, and 12,000 copies of a special event publication had been distributed, in addition to press outreach and on-campus marketing. With the university’s two “live” Jayhawk mascots, Big and Little Jay, along with the project’s board, union board members, and the Ascher family, more than 500 people turned out for the unveiling, and another 2,400 watched online. 

In 2017 the higher education best practices consulting firm EAB released a survey of over 200,000 students that examined the importance of campus environment when students select an institution. “A welcoming environment is undoubtedly important to attract prospective students and engage current students. But many campus leaders do not realize the full impact of the physical environment. More so than academic reputation (12.9%) and cost (11.5%), it’s the campus environment (13.6%) that drives students.” 

If mascots can elevate campus environment through historical and cultural representation, marketing, and social identity, then unions like the one at Kansas and at a myriad of other institutions are “taking the bait.” It’s nearly commonplace for a union to have a selfie-site under its roof that includes the school mascot or a life size mascot sculpture at or near the main entrance. 

Permanent benches with life-size mascot sculptures were designed to be designated selfie and group photo locations. They are at New Mexico State University (Pistol Pete bench outside Crobett Center Student Union), Kansas State University (Willie the Wildcat bench in front of the K-State Union spirit wall), and in Ohio State University Union, where the Brutus the Buckeye bench has been voted by students as the number one selfie site on the campus. 

Officials at New Mexico State specifically cited the draw of the Horned Frog mascot statue just outside Brown-Lupton University Union at Texas Christian as the impetus for the Pistol Pete bench. The front lawn of West Virginia University’s Mountainlair student union is a destination point for any campus visitor looking to be photographed with the life size bronze Mountaineer statue. 

Campus bucket lists are also including “find the mascot” trails and scavenger hunts and invariably lead one into the college union. At North Carolina State a “Find the Wolves” contest can’t be completed without a visit to Talley Student Union, because everyone knows about the wolf mascot created within a three-story, wooden trellis in the building atrium that has won architectural design awards. But if you’re going to find the 20 mascot displays on campus, you’ll need to find two more in Talley: the “Think and Do” titled wolf made of red Legos and the Native American-inspired wolf in the multicultural affairs office. 

The University of Tennessee and the University of Cincinnati have both incorporated mascots into fun walks and as points of interest. Earlier this year Tennessee unveiled 10 versions of Smokey, the university’s bluetick coonhound mascot, including one on the pedestrian bridge at the student union. The brainchild of the student government association, it was originally intended as a single statue, but administrators with a student and staff committee broaden the scope of the project. 

“We’re proud of our campus traditions and this seemed like a unique and exciting way to celebrate one of our longest-running traditions,” said senior associate vice chancellor for finance and administration Jeff Maples. 

Also this year, the University of Cincinnati opened a display of 30 life-sized Bearcat mascots that are spread out across the campus and community. Through sponsorships of each mascot, money will be raised for student scholarships, funding for the Bearcat food pantry, and to provide health service for the underserved community. Each of the Bearcats is unique, designed by an artist or team of artists, and has a theme around it. At Tangeman University Center you can find The Hero Within Bearcat, which honors “the everyday hero on the street who, through a small and kind deed or simple act, makes the difference for those in need.” 



Earlier this year at California State University–Long Beach student voter turnout to name a new school mascot was triple the turnout of the previous student government election. It was a shark that would take a bite out of Prospector Pete, the controversial mascot that was first recognized with a bronze statue in 1967. 

“Multiple scholars have cited the California prospectors, also known as the 49ers, as culpable in violent and genocidal acts against the indigenous people of California,” the Associated Students resolution stated. “Prospectors in California perpetuated colonization, white supremacy, racism, and exclusion ideals not only against indigenous American communities, but also women, people of color, and non-Protestant communities.” 

Some institutions have acted more quickly than others to reexamine their mascots. University  of Oklahoma dropped the name of its Native American mascot in 1970, Stanford University did the same two years later, and Marquette University and St. John’s University both ended use of similar representations in 1994. In 2010 the University of Mississippi ended use of a Confederate soldier and adopted a bear as its mascot, although it retained the use of the Rebel name. 

The use of rebel as a mascot name came under scrutiny again earlier this year when the Native American Student Association at the University of Nevada–Las Vegas asked that the use of the frontiersman mascot be ended and a statue of the same on campus be removed. In August the vice president for equity and inclusion at the University of New Mexico said the redesign process of the university seal that is centered around a frontiersman and a conquistador would get underway, and the process continues for reviewing the existing Aztec Warrior figure after it was redesignated as a spirit leader and note an official mascot. 

“We will undertake an effort to assess whether to add other meaningful symbols, marks, or representations, including historically accurate animal symbols that capture the intellectual sophistication, power, and bravery of the Aztec civilization,” said New Mexico president Sally Roush. 

While University  of Oklahoma  is recognized as the first in the nation to drop a mascot based on racist stereotyping, the undergraduate student congress in 2016 again raised the issue of neglecting to address what it called culturally inappropriate identification in the form of the school’s “Boomer Sooner” slogan. The Indigenize OU student organization supported the congress’ vote against a resolution using the phrase “Boomer Sooner” in a congratulatory message to the school’s sports teams. 

Former University  of Oklahoma  history professor William W. Savage, speaking earlier to the local newspaper the Norman (Oklahoma) Transcript, said, “Boomers and Sooners are two kinds of criminals. The lesser one in the 19th century is the Boomer, because the Boomer was just trying to steal from Indians. Sooners were trying to steal from white people, and that’s unforgivable. You can’t do that—at least that’s how people thought back then.” 

The fallout from using culturally inappropriate and stereotypically racist mascots was attempted to be quantified by new research earlier this year from Yale University. The work looked at the lingering presence of the Native American mascot at the University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign, after being officially ended, and whether or not that presence had a negative effect on charitable contributions and inclusivity efforts. 

Writing in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Michael W. Kraus and co-authors found the mascot remained a presence on campus and was seen on 10% of clothing worn by students. They went on to say that exposure to prejudicial imagery reduced the likelihood of an individual donating to the university by 5.5%. 

Whether the lingering presence of a mascot the use of which had officially been ended effects giving or not, researchers Angelina Castagno and Stacey J. Lee, writing in Equity & Excellence in Education, have noted that many policies on eliminating Native American mascots don’t go far enough. 

Policies that discourage, rather than prohibit, like the one at the University of Illinois–Urbana–Champaign, leave questions unanswered, they noted. “What does it mean for an institution to simply ‘discourage’ such behavior? Unfortunately, the policy evades this question and leaves the issue open to different interpretations. What is clear, at least, is that in discouraging behavior, the institution has no responsibility or accountability to demand any real change.” 

Gender in mascot is another issue that is being raised on some campuses, and at Rutgers University earlier this year the Student Association passed a bill to create black, Latino, Asian, and third-gender friends to accompany the school’s Scarlet Knight mascot. And at Bowling Green State University sibling mascots Freddie and Freida Falcon have been promoting school spirit together since 1980. 


  • Steve Chaplin

    Steve Chaplin is managing editor of ACUI’s The Bulletin and manager of the ACUI College Union and Student Activities (CUSA) Evaluation Program. A former newspaper writer, editor, and manager, he has volunteered as a student mentor as a member of the National Association of Science Writers, and received awards for his writing and reporting from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, the Kentucky Education Association, and the Kentucky Press Association.

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