While the University tweeted out a quippy response and later denied any affiliation to the photo or its rhetoric, ASU needs to take a stronger stance to ensure it isn't inadvertently supporting a political agenda.
ASU didn't enact any new policy changes despite the photo, nor did it take any action for the employee wearing the Sparky suit.
Although the University is treating the photo as relatively benign, it has greater implications.
It is important for ASU to ensure that it does not implicate endorsement of any particular political affiliation so as to not indoctrinate its students. Furthermore, as a public university which receives money from students as well as the state of Arizona, it is crucial for the institution to not appear to have a political agenda.
Katie Paquet, the vice president of ASU Media Relations and Strategic Communications, said the photo was likely a mistake on the mascot’s part.
“The photo was taken at a student fair,” Paquet said. “It was a housing fair, so there were a lot of different organizations and student groups participating in the fair and taking photos with Sparky. When this photo occurred, I don’t think Sparky realized the ramification of this particular post and poster. But the photo was taken and it was posted. It does not represent the views of the University, but I fully recognize that the photo exists and it’s out there.”
Terence Ball, an emeritus professor in the School of Politics and Global Studies, said that even though the photo does not represent the affiliation of the University, the photo of Sparky holding the sign acts as a university endorsement of TPUSA’s political views.
“The University has a right to stop that sort of thing because the mascot isn’t working as an individual, but as a symbol of the University,” Ball said. “That makes it look like the University is endorsing a certain view against big government.”
This is particularly a problem at an academic institution because politicizing the institution also politicizes the academic environment.
While ASU cannot ask TPUSA to take down the post due to their First Amendment rights, the image of the mascot appearing to support conservative viewpoints has sparked controversy in the online community.
The University could very well create a policy preventing mascots from consenting to taking photos with political signs, but it currently has no plans to do so.
“There is no policy change that will be taking place at this time. We will just remind Sparky of the guidelines as a representative of the University," Paquet said.
Currently, the job listing for the Sparky mascot on ASU's student employment page lists that "throughout your entire time in the costume, you must remain quiet, no talking allowed" as one of the requirements for the job, in addition to height, weight and availability to transportation. The job listing specifies no policy against taking photographs or representing the University.
Simply reminding Sparky of his duties might not be enough to prevent future incidents like this from occurring. Instead, specific media guidelines should be clearly defined for representatives of the University in order to avoid photos implicating University endorsement of political messages.
A school's mascot is a direct representation of the school itself, and politicizing a mascot essentially politicizes a school. As future leaders and free thinkers, students should be free from the indoctrination of the university they attend.
Editor’s note: The opinions presented in this column are the author’s and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors.
Want to join the conversation? Send an email to email@example.com. Keep letters under 500 words and be sure to include your university affiliation. Anonymity will not be granted.