After receiving criticism for naming its mascot after the depiction of a character in a racist book and film, Boston University is forming a committee to consider renaming Rhett the Terrier, President Robert Brown announced in an email Wednesday.
Students voted the Boston Terrier into the school’s official mascot position over the bull moose in 1922. The mascot eventually took on the nickname “Rhett” at an unconfirmed time after this.
The BU mascot’s name is a reference to the fictional character Rhett Butler in Margaret Mitchell’s novel “Gone with the Wind,” which is “associated with the Confederacy, slavery, and sexual assault,” Brown wrote. Given the University was founded by abolitionists, Brown wrote that the movie’s “offensive” portrayal of the Civil War is “completely at odds” with BU’s traditional values.
Brown wrote that Rhett’s name is a play on words for BU’s school color, scarlet. Butler’s love interest in the novel also happens to be Scarlett O’Hara — just as the mascot loves his school.
The official BU Admissions Twitter account posted Feb. 19, 2016 a “fun fact” that “no one loves Scarlet more than Rhett.” The tweet was last documented June 11 and has since been deleted.
College of Fine Arts Dean Harvey Young and Alumni Relations Vice President Steve Hall will chair the committee to be composed of alumni, students, faculty and members of BU Athletics, according to Brown’s email.
Brian Kelley, associate athletic director for BU Athletics marketing and communications, wrote in an iMessage that the Athletics department will be represented on the committee, but will not comment at this time.
Arcangelo Cella, who graduated from the School of Law in 2014, emailed Brown June 12 with his concerns and created a Change.org petition June 21, asking the University to rename Rhett. As of Wednesday, the petition had more than 500 signatures.
“There has been a lot of renewed discussion around addressing cultural monuments to white supremacy and how we can contextualize them responsibly,” Cella wrote in his email. “The allusion to Rhett Butler through our mascot is a very visible, inappropriate reference to a problematic character in a racist film, and I do not think that BU benefits from its continued use.”
Brown replied to Cella’s email Wednesday, after his email to the BU community, writing that he will announce the committee’s decision in the Fall. In the University-wide email, Brown said the committee would present its proposal to him in October.
Given Brown’s acknowledgement of the film’s offensive nature, Cella said BU’s image would suffer if the committee decides against changing Rhett’s name.
“President Brown’s email was pretty clear that the final decision has not been made,” Cella said. “To maintain the name would be doing some real social harm by continuing to contribute to this sort of pop culture that glorifies Gone With the Wind and the ideas it stands for.”
Cella said he will keep the petition open until a final decision has been made. The focus, he said, has been shifted from asking BU to take action to further encouraging the name change.
“I don’t think that this is finished,” Cella said. “As long as there’s room for the school to still decide to maintain the name, the petition is not going anywhere.”
Cella said he was inspired by a 2017 blog post by Rafi D’Angelo entitled “Gone with the Wind,’ the Confederacy, and preserving art,” which argues that communities must not be afraid to critically analyze racist art rather than celebrate it as tradition.
“This is not a situation where I think it was okay back then, but we’ve come to realize that it’s inappropriate now,” Cella said. “I think it was inappropriate back then, and it’s all the more inappropriate now.”
Streaming service HBO Max removed the 1939 “Gone With the Wind” film from its selection June 9, and has now added a disclaimer after the film returned to the platform. Cella said this move encourages conversation, but that BU would not be able to replicate such a means of discussion.
“The proper way to address this problem is to retire the mascot’s name,” Cella said. “It is not something we’re going to attach a disclaimer to.”
Calvin Iwanicki, owner of the unofficial mascot Rhett, who died in March at 12 years old, wrote in an iMessage that he believes it would be a “huge mistake” for the University to rename Rhett.
“Our Rhett the Terrier is, after all the perfect symbol of racial harmony,” Iwanicki wrote. “He was black, white, and brindle brown. He loved people of all races and backgrounds and was loved in return by them.”
Steve Barnes, who graduated from the College of Liberal Arts in 1990, said the nostalgia is “unnecessary” and that he sees no harm in renaming Rhett.
“The dog is what, 98 years old at this point?” Barnes said. “Ninety-eight in dog years is… almost 700, so there’s a lot of dead Rhetts along the way. There’s no reason you can’t kill off his name.”
Though several students have spoken out on social media that the University should focus its attention on more important issues, Barnes said BU can still make a “relatively easy and incredibly obvious” change.
“It’s the symbol of the University. You don’t get much more important than saying our mascot needs to be changed,” Barnes said. “I don’t think the University loses anything and has everything to gain by acknowledging the association because of that name.”
But when rising College of Arts and Sciences senior Calvin Heffes saw Brown’s email, he thought it was “absurd.” He said the change takes away from other issues he feels the administration should prioritize, as the namesake of the BU Terrier is “very non-threatening” relative to matters such as a global pandemic.
“It’s a made-up character,” Heffes said. “A name isn’t offensive because it was shared with somebody else who did bad things. I just don’t understand.”
Pep Band Manager Victoria Paspalas, a rising senior in CFA, said she thinks renaming Rhett is “low on the totem pole.” She added that the University has not addressed other causes students have brought up via petitions.
“I’m not seeing any sort of response from the University about that so that’s just been kind of jarring to get that email this morning,” Paspalas said. “The University has gotten so many well-put together petitions that actually have a significant impact.”
Paspalas said that BU Hockey cheers would be affected by a mascot name change, as some of the chants include Rhett’s name.
Other aspects of BU life also revolve around Rhett’s title, such as Rhetty To Go meals from BU Dining Services.