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What the fight between a horse and a cow reveals about how students see their university

It all started when Mick Hashimoto arrived at the University of California, Davis for Freshman Orientation and smelled like cows.

Hailing from a bustling town just outside of Denver, Hashimoto recalls being immediately hit by the strong stench coming from the UC-Davis Dairy, an on-campus pet store that houses about 300 cows.

But as the year progressed, what started out as a somewhat unwanted campus oddity turned into a point of pride for Hashimoto. The connection between cows and the university’s agricultural roots resonated with him.

“I decided, OK, well, that’s part of it,” Hashimoto said. “I think going into orientation, or just going into the first week of school, you’re really next to the cow and you’re like, ‘Wow, this is agriculture school n No. 1. “It makes me proud in the sense that it’s what UC-Davis is known for, and it’s great to be No. 1 at something.

That’s why Hashimoto, now a double major in economics and statistics, started a movement — or MOOvement, as he likes to call it — to change the university’s mascot from Gunrock the Mustang to Aggie the cow. He wants the campus community to be proud of UC-Davis and its agricultural origins, and he wants to galvanize the spirit of the school.

The UC-Davis student government held a referendum this month on whether to change the mascot. Only 12% of the students voted, but the result was decisive: more than 70% of those who voted were pro-cow.

Any official changes would need to be approved by the university administration, the athletics department, and the Cal Aggie Alumni Association. It’s probably an uphill battle, considering the financial costs of the logo change and the alumni’s affinity for the horse.

“We love our cows on campus, but Gunrock the Mustang remains UC-Davis’ mascot,” a university spokesperson wrote in an email. “Any change would have to go through a process and then be approved by the alumni association and the administration.”

Yet widespread support for the Cow4Mascot The campaign – pitting the horse, which some students view as elitist, against the cow, which they see as more representative of the diversity of today’s student body – is a vivid demonstration of what students think about the institutional identity. It even recalls the long-standing struggle in higher education between prestige and mission.

Reclaim “Cow Town”

Turn to the Internet, and the words “UC-Davis” and “cows” often appear together. There is a wiki page dedicated to their presence on campus. On the UC-Davis Dairy Instagram account, students in graduation attire take selfies with puzzled cows. The property’s proximity to a popular student dorm seems to have inspired a number of wryly written opinion pieces.

But Hashimoto said the association with the cow has been used to denigrate the university for years. He often heard people refer to UC-Davis as a “cow town.” During the college application process, he recalls hearing the stereotype that no one wanted to go.

“There are a lot of negative connotations with UC-Davis as a cow image,” he said. “I think it’s something we want to take back and get under our control. In this way, we see it in a positive light.

People involved in the Cow4Mascot campaign say the campus community has much to be proud of. For the past decade, UC-Davis’ agriculture and forestry programs have been the second-best in the world university rankings by subject. Its veterinary school has held the No. 1 or No. 2 spot every year since 2015.

Brittany Tang, a junior political science and public service student and campaign leader, said the Cow4Mascot effort has united many types of students and boosted campus pride in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Coming from the city, from the metro area, I certainly had my own qualms about coming to the Davis campaign,” said Tang, a Southern California native. “The way I saw it was that we should use this as an opportunity to own it in terms of Aggie’s pride, to really own this and redefine what it meant to us.”

While a cow isn’t as scary as some college mascots, like the popular tiger or wildcat, Hashimoto said there is precedent for this kind of change. The banana slug, often found on the redwood forest floor, became the official mascot of the University of California, Santa Cruz in 1986 after students used a straw poll to persuade the administration to embrace the slimy, bright yellow mollusk. A tree has been recognized as Stanford University’s unofficial mascot for the past two decades.

“The original idea for a mascot was to make it athletic and fierce and intimidating,” Hashimoto said, “whereas now it’s more about the identity of the student and the identity of the school.”

Change a mascot

Campaign members say that in addition to serving as a better symbol for agriculture, a hardworking cow is more representative of the diversity of today’s student body than an elite racehorse.

Gunrock, the current mascot, is named after a thoroughbred racehorse born in Britain over 100 years ago. Gunrock was donated to the Cavalry Remount Service and placed in college, and was eventually bred with 476 mares “for the purpose of improving horse stock” for civilian and military purposes, according to the university. Students voted for the mustang name and mascot in the 1920s and then again in the early 2000s. In 2003, today’s furry, blue Gunrock mascot officially arrived on campus.

“It was always something that students chose for themselves, but over the years I think they lost touch with it,” Tang said. Students actually voted for a cow mascot in 1993, but the proposal was rejected by the university administration.

The opinion of the elders, according to her and Hashimoto, is one of the biggest obstacles this time around. Since the students voted to support their proposal, Cow4Mascot campaign leaders have been engaging in conversations with alumni – and have been surprised at how strongly some resent the current mascot.

While acknowledging that there are emotions and well-meaning ideas all around, Debby Stegura, former president of the Cal Aggie Alumni Association, said she favors keeping Gunrock alive because of its tradition. She also believes that a horse reflects UC-Davis’ identity just as much as a cow.

A cow, she says, is often associated with the institution, but the same could be said of the wild turkeys roaming the city or the sheep grazing in the nearby meadows.

“I think it represents where we’re going,” Stegura said of the horse, clarifying that was his opinion and not that of the alumni association. “The analogy I made is that thoroughbred is how fast this university is growing.”

Changing the university’s marketing program, uniforms, logos and anything associated with Gunrock’s image to accommodate a new mascot would also be a “huge financial burden,” she said.

One possibility that has emerged from discussions so far, Hashimoto and Tang said, is that the cow could be a second mascot, with Gunrock still leading in terms of uniforms, clothing and marketing. The only cost would be for a second mascot costume. Then, in a few years, when current students step into these roles of alumni and donors, they believe, the cow might take center stage.

The university farm

Frank Mitloehner, a professor and air quality specialist in the university’s animal science department, said he was surprised to learn that the students’ proposal had received so much support. But Mitloehner believes kissing the cow would make historical sense. And students’ enthusiasm for change, he said, could speak volumes about their values.

UC-Davis opened in 1908 as a farm for the University of California at Berkeley. About 30 years later it was renamed the College of Agriculture at Davis, and in 1959 it was officially designated as its own campus in the UC system. While the university now offers many majors beyond agriculture, Mitloehner said, the animal science major remains one of the most important programs.

Most Mitloehner students come from big cities. These students, he said, have no connection to agriculture, but are interested in food. They grapple with key societal questions: Where does food come from? How is it grown? What is its environmental impact? What about animal welfare?

“All of these issues are so much on the minds of these 20-year-olds,” Mitloehner said. “That’s one of the reasons they come to this campus.”

Students, he said, need to think hard about how to feed a rapidly growing world population in a sustainable way that doesn’t destroy the planet. UC-Davis, he said, is often considered to be at the forefront of these issues and “the link between agricultural productivity and sustainability.”

“We are neither, we are something that connects these two areas,” Mitloehner said. “I’m very comfortable with it. I think it’s where I want to be, and it’s where many of our students want to be. This mascot discussion plays into that.

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