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gender exclusivity

The university’s women’s teams were referred to as Lady Wesmen and Women Wesmen before they became Wesmen.John Woods/The Globe and Mail

The University of Winnipeg has gone through a lot of changes in recent years, including adding new buildings, sports teams and faculties.

But the mere suggestion that the U of W's nickname, the Wesmen, could be replaced with a more gender-neutral moniker may be one change too far.

The university says the name has been a concern for years and, with a $40-million recreation complex under construction, now is a good time to look into coming up with a new one. But many students and alumni are furious and say university officials are turning their backs on decades of tradition.

It's the latest in a series of skirmishes on campuses across North America where school nicknames have come under attack for being perceived as racist or sexist. The University of North Dakota recently dropped Fighting Sioux, joining a long list of U.S. universities to shed names deemed offensive to native Americans.

In Canada, York University switched from Yeomen to Lions in 2003 and the University of Waterloo stopped calling its female athletes Atheneas in 1998 and adopted Warriors for men's and women's teams.

The debate in Winnipeg over Wesmen is just starting but passions are running high.

"It is a slap in the face of history to change the name Wesmen – a history shared by female and male athletes alike, as well as the Winnipeg community," said student Tom Douglas-Powell who plays on the Wesmen volleyball team and started a Facebook page called Save the Wesmen.

"If in the quest to be politically correct, we must change Wesmen, does that mean we need to change Manitoba Hall? The Bulman [Student] Centre? … Many of the most passionate posts on the page have been from women."

Tanya McKay played basketball at the U of W and now coaches the women's team. She is also somewhat perplexed by the decision to reconsider the nickname. "For sure, there is an attachment [to the name]," Ms. McKay said. "There's definitely a buzz around campus. People are talking about it, it's in the media, people are asking questions. As a staff member, we're kind of just waiting for what's next. We are really unsure."

Jeremy Read, an adviser to university president Lloyd Axworthy, said the university's athletic program has expanded enormously and officials felt it was time to reconsider the name. The U of W has added 11 varsity teams in the past three years, increasing the number of student athletes to 200 from 60. Construction of the recreation complex is under way, along with improvements to other sports facilities. "If we were to pursue a name change, now would be a good time to do it," Mr. Read said. "There have been historical questions about the gender exclusivity of the Wesmen name."

He added that university officials understand the passionate responses among some people on campus. "We know that there are people who are attached to this name and it's because of the strong history here," he said. The debate "is a good thing. This is the kind of conversation we wanted to have. Is it time, or isn't it?"

The Wesmen name goes back to 1938, when Wesley College and Manitoba College joined to form United College. That college had an affiliation with the University of Manitoba until 1967, when it became the University of Winnipeg. The U of W named its sports teams the Wesman, taking the first three letters of the two founding colleges. That was later changed to Wesmen.

For years, the university grappled with what to call women's teams, using Lady Wesmen and Women Wesmen before calling all teams Wesmen. One option for the new nickname is United, as in Winnipeg United, which Mr. Read said would draw on the university's history.

Lauren Bosc, president of the U of W's Students' Association, said revisiting the name is not such a bad idea. "Gender inclusivity is really important," said Ms. Bosc, who has a degree in women's studies. "The identity of the University of Winnipeg as a whole has changed so much since I was a student that I think it's worth the conversation."