New College has been having something of an identity crisis lately. With Richard Corcoran’s recent promises to admitted students to restructure campus culture to include traditional intercollegiate sports teams and Greek life, it seems that the new administration has changes in mind for New College beyond the elimination of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Changes like the one that the Communications and Marketing Department announced to students and faculty on Apr. 13, stating that “New College is looking for a new mascot” to replace the current Null Set or “[ ]” mascot. But is a new mascot something that the community wants? And what does this proposed change—not just to the curriculum or facilities, but to New College history and culture—mean for the administration’s attempts to shape a more traditional campus experience?
The announcement of a new prospective mascot was coupled with an informal survey, featuring a list of potential mascots. It is unclear who or what department decided on the options listed. The original survey was intended to remain up until Apr. 28, but was taken down early. It is unclear when the survey was taken offline, but members of the Catalyst first noticed that the survey was inactive on Apr. 20.
However, a student-run and student-monitored copy of this same survey remains active for community input.
It is worth noting that the terms “trailblazers,” “gamechangers” and “innovators” all reflect language used in an Apple commercial that Corcoran featured during Admitted Students Day. The option, “The Rebels,” appears to be directly inspired by it.
Multiple students spoke with the Catalyst on the insensitivity of the Conquistadors option in particular.
“Some of them [the options] were a bit untasteful, I don’t know how ‘Conquistadors’ got on there,” thesis student Nick Beck said.
“All of the choices are very out of touch,” third-year Alphonse Engels commented. “A little bit weird, kind of uncomfortable, especially the ‘Conquistadors’ option.”
However, something else that students noticed was that the current mascot, the Null Set, had been excluded from the list of mascot options entirely.
“I think that the Null Set is really funny and quirky and charming, and I don’t think there’s any real need to change it except for wanting to make New College less weird,” third-year and thesising student Kyle Miller said.
Indeed, the Null Set mascot has garnered attention for being especially unique and strange. According to a former page on the New College website, the Null Set mascot first came to fruition in 1997. Prior to this year and since the 1970s, the New College Student Alliance (NCSA) had considered a stray dog named Brownie who roamed campus to be the official campus mascot, per the “Article IX III/IV—Symbols Embraced by the NCSA” segment of the NCSA Constitution.
Following Brownie’s passing in the mid-1990s, the Constitution received a series of updates, including Brownie’s removal from Article IX III/IV.
“However, students could not agree on a new mascot,” this webpage reports. “The approved amendment simply deleted Brownie without putting anything in his place.”
“Instead, members of the NCSA at the time chose to leave a set of empty brackets in this updated amendment so that a formal mascot could be selected by students later on. However, this empty set came to be embraced as an “intentional and ironic wink at [students’] bookish nature and lack of competitive teams.”
Despite its origins, the Null Set mascot has also been embraced and utilized by New College staff and administration in recent years. One widely-recognized example is the Student Activities and Campus Engagement (SA[U]CE) office, which includes the Null Set in its official acronym. Similarly, New College’s theatrical production company also includes the Null Set in its title, [performance @ new college]. Marketing material for the college has also included references to the Null Set, including a promotional video centered around tackling the coronavirus pandemic titled “[New] Can Do This,” released in 2020.
“It’s lasted for almost 20 years, and probably will stick forever, as an homage to the nerdy, nonconformist nature of New College,” the Null Set webpage once said. This webpage has since been removed from the official New College website. It is unclear when it was taken down.
Professor of Classics David Rohrbacher in particular spoke about the cultural significance of the Null Set mascot and the importance of preserving tradition on campus in a prepared statement given to the Catalyst.
“An important virtue for the Romans was pietas or ‘piety,’” Rohrbacher wrote. “It means having respect for your ancestors and for what came before you. Generations of New College students and faculty have passed through here with the Null Set mascot. It is the best mascot of all time? Well, I like it. But it doesn’t matter. You can’t invent tradition.”
“Next they will be naming the days of the week after prominent Republican donors,” he added.
Rohrbacher was also involved in an initiative during Spring 2019 to design and create an official mascot costume for the Null Set, and emphasized the marketing potential that it has.
“Just as a piece of viral marketing, everyone knows the schools with real mascots,” Rohrbacher said during an interview. “I really thought that this would be the kind of story that everything in the world would have an opinion on. I think we don’t do well with highlighting the school and its differences.”
Rohrbacher went on to explain that the movement to create the Null Set mascot costume had gained significant traction among faculty and staff, even gaining the support of then-Provost Barbara Feldman. However, plans fell apart when former Production Manager and Technical Director of the Black Box Theatre (BBT) Monica Cross—who was tasked with constructing the costume—left the college. Rohrbacher also stated that the plan had been unpopular with the Communications and Marketing Department at the time.
“Just like today, they don’t like it,” Rohrbacher said. “They feel that students and parents don’t like it. It’s so bizarre to say [students would think], ‘I was going to go there, but the mascot is lame.’ But it must also bring in a number of people as well. Our marketing team have often been people from traditional backgrounds and just aren’t very effective at selling a non-traditional school.
“Still, I think it’s a really good idea, maybe now more than ever,” he continued. “I don’t see anything in the Null Set that has to do with partisan politics, with liberal arts or not liberal arts. In fact, it seems kind of liberal arts in being something academic rather than, say, the Conquistadors or some animal. It’ll always be the mascot to me, to alums, to people who value the tradition of the school.”
With this tradition in mind, many students spoke to the Catalyst about their love for the Null Set mascot, and how they feel that a change in mascot is unnecessary.
“I actually love the Null Set, I think it catches people’s attention,” second-year Aidan Jones said. “I think it has a lot more meaning than pretty much any other mascot I’ve seen.”
“I haven’t heard anybody asking for a new mascot,” Beck said. “I actually don’t think that there’s really any demand for a change in mascot, and I don’t think it’s because the Null Set is perfect, but it’s embraced. People don’t want to change it and they don’t want to be told it needs to be changed without there being a lot of asking for it.”
With the reasons for a new mascot being unclear, many students speculated that it is tied to attempts to attract sports-inclined students and rebrand New College as a more traditional university.
“I think it’s kind of emblematic of something else that the trustees want,” Jones stated. “They want money and they want students. And what attracts that are empty signals of, really sort of meaningless statements. Like, a ‘career-focused education,’ or people use the term ‘holistic’ a lot, or they say, ‘future leaders’ or something. These empty terms that don’t really mean anything […] I think it’s pure marketing. It’s marketing I don’t like.
“I just want our symbols to have a lot more depth,” Jones concluded.
Several students also expressed their disappointment in Communications and Marketing for their survey being the first instance of them seeking community input for a new prospective mascot, and for not gauging community interest in whether a new mascot was wanted in the first place.
“If you’re going to skip that step, then there should be an option for the Null Set,” Engels said. “On top of that, there should be agreement on what other options are there.”
“There were definitely some steps skipped,” Beck said. “There’s been a lot of that though, lately. A lot of it has been in lesser-seen ways, mostly because there’s been so many changes of staff. There’s some new members who aren’t really well-acquainted with what we’ve got going on here.”
In response to complaints, Beck made his own alternative mascot survey shortly after the one by Communications and Marketing was released. This survey consisted of a “[ ]” option, a handful of options that students on the student forum had suggested and one category for all the options provided by Communications and Marketing to fall under.
This survey was live for two days before the results were announced on Apr. 15. With 86 total votes, the “[ ]” option received 68 votes or 79.1% of the total vote. The option labeled “Any of the options on Communication’s survey” received zero votes.
Beck explained that his motivation for creating this alternative survey was to gauge what kind of results one would receive if the Null Set mascot was included as an option. Additionally, when asked whether he was surprised to see a sudden focus on mascots from members of administration, Beck answered that it wasn’t necessarily surprising, as there have been “a lot of very arbitrary emails coming from Communications or the President’s Office about things that clearly no one has asked for.”
“I don’t think there’s anything political about the Null Set, but there’s definitely something that is not very ‘classic liberal arts,’” he continued.
All of this being said, many students expressed doubt over whether their voices would truly matter in this search for a new mascot and whether the new administration has already made up their minds.
“That [survey] did not come from New College students,” Miller stated. “They did not brainstorm that list of things with New College students, or else the Null Set would have been there and not a write-in. They’ve already made up their minds and they’re just giving us a survey to make us feel like we actually have a say in it, and we actually don’t.”
“It [a change in mascot] would impact culture, just in the way that students would see it everywhere and be reminded that the logo, identity was chosen for them, basically,” Beck said. “I think it would be a bit of a slap to the face.”“The email actually started with, ‘New College is looking for a new mascot,’” Jones emphasized. “We’re not, you are.”