A group of Grinnell College alumni has started a petition drive urging administrators to get rid of the school’s nickname for its athletic teams.

Grinnell College doesn’t have a mascot, but its athletes are called “Pioneers.”

John Aerni-Flessner. a 2001 graduate who was part of Grinnell’s track and field and cross country teams, is leading the drive.

“As an alumni of the college and a member of the (Grinnell College) athletic Hall of Fame, I got thinking about the name ‘Pioneers’ and realized that this was problematic because of the celebration of westward expansion and the dispossession of Native Americans that took place alongside that,” Aerni-Flessner said. “So I decided to call up a few friends and organize a petition.”

About 750 people have signed the petition since it was posted online a month ago. In addition to alumni, current Grinnell students and faculty have signed onto the petition.

“It just came about through the conversations that people have been having around this country,” Aerni-Flessner said, “especially around the protests.”

Paragraphs in the petition note Grinnell College has branded itself as a “pioneering” institution that was at the forefront of abolition and other social justice movements, but it argues the Pioneer nickname can “easily be read” as demeaning and “a celebration of past historical wrongs.”

The petitioners are not suggesting an alternative to Pioneers. Aerni-Flessner, who was vice president of the Student Government Association when he was a Grinnell student, suggested college administrators could launch “a democratic process” to come up with a new nickname.

“That’s something for the college to weigh in on. I don’t live in Grinnell and am not directly connected with the college at the moment and most of the alumni are not as well,” Aerni-Flessner said. “The college can convene a committee, you know, do what they want with that. We’re happy to support those efforts, but we don’t have a proposal for a substitute name.”

Aerni-Flessner co-authored a book about the history of the Midwest Athletic Conference when he was a Grinnell student.

Grinnell College issued this statement:
“The College is aware that members of our community have raised concerns about the athletic nickname and acknowledges it is an important issue. Senior leadership at the College is currently developing a collaborative process to evaluate Grinnell’s mascot in a way that engages perspectives from all constituents. At Grinnell we have a strong commitment to inclusivity, and we are proud that so many Grinnellians share this commitment. Our diversity and inclusion efforts are a fundamental part of the College and will remain a vital component of our institutional goals over the long term. “

(By Tim Dill, KGRN, Grinnell; Radio Iowa’s O. Kay Henderson also contributed to this story. Photo from Grinnell College)

(This story was updated to add the statement from the college.)