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Symbols are important touchstones

Symbols embody important meanings in universities, whether they are mascots, logos or official seals. Their significance is defined by intellectual, cultural and social interactions and conventions, none of which are static.

The Journal’s recent editorial is correct in that the University of New Mexico seal deserves consideration. The UNM seal has changed several times in the University’s history and it may well be time to consider a change again.

I suppose that some people might say that a seal is not all that important. And, in some ways, they are right. The days of wax seals being affixed to official documents to establish their legal validity is long past.

Readers of this newspaper know that UNM has a lot of very serious issues that we are working to address, most of which are much more than merely symbolic. But the seal is an important representation of the state’s flagship university. Even more importantly, the relevance of symbols can change over time. So, even though a seal no longer has legal importance, it is still important to take symbols seriously.

It was eye-opening to hear what some of our students think about the seal. To them, the seal highlights notions of colonization and, worse, leaves them feeling invisible and disenfranchised.

The students’ words caused me to remember the first time I noticed the seal as I began my job as a regent. I can’t say that it struck me as racist, but it seemed archaic and I certainly did not see a reflection of a 21st century UNM.

A seal should be a core reflection of the university’s identity, and it is important that it be an accurate reflection of who we are now and for the foreseeable future. If one agrees with that idea, then the students who have raised the issue have a righteous claim because this seal seems to fail that test.

I am certainly willing to be educated further, but the seal simply does not seem to capture our modern vision of UNM.

I am a booster of the university and talk about it frequently with members of the community. When I describe our great university, neither a 19th century frontiersman nor a 17th century conquistador ever surfaces in the discussion. Our rich Hispanic, Native and Anglo traditions? Yes. Our ever-broadening diversity? Yes. But these curious and perhaps somewhat archaic figures? Never.

UNM is a vibrant and living institution. Our educational programs have evolved substantially over the past 127 years. Its symbols must live and evolve, too. Sometimes, that means they must change.

The American flag has changed numerous times over the years and even the U.S. Constitution has been amended not once or twice, but 27 times. It only makes sense that we look at the seal to make sure that it continues to reflect our values. If it doesn’t, we should change it.

We have embarked on a branding exercise to convey a more accurate representation of our identity in the marketplace and began evaluating a change to the UNM logo earlier this spring. The seal ought to be part of that discussion.

Some traditionalists who are attached to UNM’s current symbols may be uncomfortable with a change. If that is so, we need to hear from them. Until now, most voices on the topic have vigorously asked for change.

But many other people are entitled to be heard because UNM belongs to a very large and diverse community. It is important to hear from everyone. I look forward to that conversation.

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