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Should school keep Crusader nickname?

The question of whether the Crusader nickname and mascot serve Susquehanna University well has come up regularly over the past 40 years.

There has been a lot of talk in recent weeks about "political correctness," particularly among our presidential candidates. Donald Trump doesn't have time for it. Ben Carson thinks it's "ruining our country." They and many others resent being criticized for intolerance and discrimination. Yet they twist the term political correctness to denigrate critics and excuse their own behavior disparaging another's race, gender, or national origin.

This has weighed on my mind recently as accusations of political correctness have played out on my own campus, Susquehanna University, over our board's decision to revisit our longtime nickname and mascot: the Crusaders.

The name, which was first used by a Philadelphia sports writer in 1924, was a reference to Susquehanna athletic director Luther Grossman's "crusade" to bring integrity to intercollegiate athletics. From the early 1960s through the 1980s, the symbols of a medieval crusader — a Maltese cross, a knight, and lance — were associated with campus athletic teams. In the early 1990s, as part of our efforts to become a more welcoming and inclusive campus, we moved away from the medieval iconography and adopted the symbol of a flag highlighting our orange and maroon school colors.  A desire for a campus mascot in the late 1990s led to the birth of "the Caped Crusader," an orange tiger in a maroon cape. The need to replace that costume led students two years ago to consider other alternatives.

In reality, the question of whether the Crusader nickname and mascot serve our university well has come up regularly over the past 40 years.

In the meantime, our campus has grown increasingly diverse. This fall we welcomed our largest and most diverse class: 23 percent of our nearly 700 freshmen are nonwhite. In addition to the increased diversity on campus, our students are exposed to different cultures and ideas through their  travels. We require that all of our students study away through Susquehanna's Global Opportunities program. So, as our students continued to struggle to identify a new iconography, our board of trustees believed now was the time for us to engage in a serious conversation about it.

For the past six weeks I've been on the road, gathering input on the Crusader nickname and mascot from students, faculty, staff, and alumni. As you might guess, folks came down on both sides of the issue. Some feel a loyalty to the tradition associated with Crusader and want to own and define the term in light of its origins here. Others felt that the Crusader nickname has negative connotations that are at odds with our university's values and commitment to diversity and inclusiveness.

Both those feelings are valid, but I bristle at the critics who have suggested that we are bowing to political correctness by even bringing this issue to debate. It seems it's easier than ever these days to rise up and rail against political correctness. Used as a justification, insult, or outright dismissal, it prevents difficult issues from being treated with the complexity they deserve. To pride oneself — as some of those presidential candidates do — on opposing "political correctness" is to stubbornly insist on the right to trivialize issues that may affect others' lives.

I'm wary of any suggestion that we limit the discussion of challenging, or even disturbing, ideas; topics that are disturbing or difficult often require the most discussion. Moreover, I can think of no better place for such debates and discussion than the college campus — which operates with the very goal of opening students' minds to new ideas and new people. We want our students to leave here with the understanding that the appropriate response to ideas they oppose is not censorship or pat dismissal, but spirited and thoughtful debate on their merits.

I think our board of trustees — and indeed everyone in our Susquehanna family who engaged in this process in such respectful ways — is courageous. We need people who can listen to the views of others and to respect, not constantly demonize, those who are different or have different views than those we hold. We need to engage serious questions and we need leaders — on our campuses, in our communities, and as a country — to do this work.

L. Jay Lemons is president of Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pa.