CARSON CITY, Nev. – UNLV President Len Jessup said the school needs to keep "Rebels" as its nickname in spite of calls for its removal, citing newly released historical research that concluded the moniker is not a reference to the Confederacy.
Jessup issued a statement Monday saying the name embodies UNLV's entrepreneurial spirit, and noting overwhelming support for the nickname and the "Hey Reb!" mascot.
"It was coined as our young institution was fighting to establish its own identity, and it has come to represent the very independence and spirit that embodies both UNLV and Southern Nevada," Jessup wrote in a message to the UNLV community. "It is clear that 'Rebels' is central to our shared identity and represents the broadest definition of the term."
Some have called for the name and mascot to be changed, saying the mustachioed, cowboy hat-wearing character appears to be a Confederate soldier. The university embarked on a formal research effort this summer after Democratic Sen. Harry Reid said regents should re-examine the Rebel nickname — comments made in the aftermath of an allegedly racially motivated mass shooting at a church in Charleston, South Carolina.
The mascot also became a flashpoint during an on-campus demonstration organized in mid-November to show solidarity with protesters at the University of Missouri.
UNLV Chief Diversity Officer Rainier Spencer finalized a 60-page research paper on the topic earlier this month, concluding the Rebel name emerged from southern Nevada students' frustrations in the 1950s that the Legislature wasn't investing as much in the south as it was in the University of Nevada, Reno.
"The Rebels nickname is not a Confederate reference, as it predates the first appearance of Confederate symbols, which was April 20, 1955," Spencer wrote in his paper. "Nevada Southern students were already known as Rebels before the application of those symbols; indeed, the symbols were applied because those students already had a non-Confederate Rebels identity, and also because of the north-south geography of the state."
Confederate imagery did appear in the following years. A winking wolf mascot named "Beauregard" is believed to be named after a Confederate general, and a Confederate battle flag appeared on the masthead of the student newspaper, "The Rebel Yell," in 1959.
The Confederate symbols fell into disfavor and were removed in the 1960s and 1970s, and the current "Hey Reb!" mascot was adopted in the 1980s. The character, developed by a committee whose guiding principle was choosing something with no Confederate connection, is supposed to be an 1800s pathfinder who leads travelers through the southern Nevada deserts on the way to California.
Jessup noted there's still one remaining image of the old Confederate-themed Beauregard mascot on campus — on the floor of the Barrick Museum that used to be the school's gymnasium. He said an interpretive sign near it gives context and explains that the university has disavowed any reference to the Confederacy.
"Rather than trying to erase our history, we must accept it, learn from it, and as we move on, strengthen our resolve for equity and inclusion," he said.
Jessup said he's also requesting the advisory board of "The Rebel Yell" evaluate the newspaper's name. But he added that the publication is independent and students have the final call on whether to keep it.
"Rebel" is far from the first school or team name to be criticized as potentially racist. Some have called for renaming Dixie State University, which uses a nickname for the cotton-growing region of southern Utah but is also linked to slavery.
Others have condemned the Washington Redskins football team's name as offensive to American Indians.