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UNLV diversity chief: Hey Reb! mascot, Rebel nickname not tied to Confederacy

Neither UNLV’s Rebel nickname nor its Hey Reb! mascot have ties to the Confederacy, according to a report released Monday by the university.

In a 60-page analysis assembled over the course of five months, UNLV Chief Diversity Officer Rainier Spencer detailed an exhaustive search of school records and a series of conversations with students, employees and community members that led him to the conclusion.

The report was requested by UNLV President Len Jessup in June following comments made by U.S. Sen. Harry Reid about the university’s nickname amid a nationwide focus on Confederacy symbols prompted by a racially inspired shooting in Charleston, S.C. Responding to a reporter’s question about the Rebel moniker, Reid said Nevada’s higher education officials “should take that up and take a look at it.”

Perennial concerns over the university’s nickname and mascot have emerged for decades from groups who decry both as racist, something Spencer says has been fueled by “mythology and general misinformation.”

UNLV President Len Jessup, in a campuswide memo announcing Spencer’s findings, said the school must keep the Rebel name but consider updating the mascot’s costume and related marketing images, which some say contradict the face of the school’s diverse student body. The mascot, which got its latest update in 2006, is characterized as a square-jawed, mustachioed man donning a wide-brimmed gray hat.

John Nasshan, a disc jockey and student mentor at UNLV radio station KUNV, said the issue is complex and needs a deeper examination than the one offered by Spencer’s report.

“There’s an outcry from the students,” Nasshan said, referring to a protest two weeks ago in which more than 200 demonstrators raised concerns about perceived racial bias on campus. “I think it deserved a better look.”

Noting that local and national media outlets responded to Reid’s comments with a “flurry of inaccurate attempts at coverage” about UNLV’s nickname and mascot, Spencer offered a historical breakdown of both.

Spencer, who founded UNLV’s African-American studies program 15 years ago, said the Rebels nickname predates the first appearance of Confederate symbols in the mid-1950s, noting that most Confederate symbols were attached to the school later and subsequently removed.

“The Rebels identity was developed through working to give Las Vegas what it rightly deserved in terms of higher education, and expressing dissatisfaction toward Carson City legislators and (state education officials) initially, and then later toward UNR,” Spencer wrote. “The Rebels identity never took part in racism or racial segregation.”

He noted that one of those Confederate references has remained within the name of UNLV’s student-produced newspaper, the Rebel Yell. Spencer said in the report that the school is asking the publication’s leadership team to consider changing the newspaper’s title.

The Hey Reb! mascot, meanwhile, was designed to look like an 1800s Las Vegas pathfinder and doesn’t have a Confederate connection, Spencer continued.

“His clothing is Western, not Confederate,” Spencer said. “His look is that of a Western frontiersperson, not of a Confederate soldier, and not of a stylized plantation owner.”

Hey Reb! replaced an earlier version of a mascot that was a cartoon wolf clad in Confederate military garb named Beauregard, believed to be inspired by Confederate Gen. Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard.

Beauregard was abolished in 1976 after a group of black athletes complained to former UNLV President Don Baepler. The Hey Reb! mascot was formed in the 1980s by a committee tasked with creating a new symbol that purged all Confederate ties, Spencer wrote.

But some say the new mascot resembles its predecessor and can still be construed as racially insensitive.

“You can’t take off a few belt buckles and have him not look like a Confederate soldier,” said UNLV student Tra Andra’ Mitchell, 22. “They need to make sure they’re talking to the whole student body and backing us up when it comes to diversity on all accounts.”

Contact Ana Ley at aley@reviewjournal.com or 702-224-5512. Find her on Twitter: @la__ley

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