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Every year, an anonymous student at Carnegie Mellon University struts around football games costumed head to paw as a Scottish terrier.
If it walks like a mascot and wags like a mascot, one could reasonably assume the "Scottie Dog" at Carnegie Mellon is precisely that.
Only it's not.
As it turns out, a school that has programmed robots for space exploration and cracked some of the world's trickiest computing riddles nevertheless falls short by one measure of problem solving skill: It has never in its 106-year history come up with an official mascot.
So the school has formed a task force to do something about it. The panel is asking students, alumni and others if the Scottie Dog now used informally ought to be Carnegie Mellon's official image, or if something else -- a robot, say, or maybe a bagpiper -- better suits a university with Scottish roots that has produced both Nobel Prize winners and Hollywood stars.
Anything within the bounds of good taste will be on the table tonight when Carnegie Mellon holds a town meeting to solicit ideas.
"It's an open slate," said John Marano Jr., who runs the school's trademark licensing office. "We're looking for something that students, alumni and our other supporters can rally around."
Of all the things that could preoccupy a major research university, the search for a fanatical sideline cheerleader would seem low on the list. But image and affinity -- right down to anointing the proper mascot -- are deadly serious business to a college.
They can gradually influence everything from attendance at football games to fund-raising drives. And let's face it, shirts and mugs stamped with an ugly icon aren't likely to fly off bookstore shelves.
The search at Carnegie Mellon will likely be aided by focus groups. The decision itself will reach all the way to university President Jared L. Cohon.
Over the years, Carnegie Mellon's left-brain, right-brain mix of performance arts and hard science hasn't always made for a unified campus. Nor has its smattering of images, be it kilts, a highlander or the nickname of the school's NCAA Division III sports teams, "The Tartans," so named for the plaid textile design of Scottish descent.
"We have Tartan as our name, but it's characterized as the Scottie Dogs because you can't really have a Tartan out there dancing around. That's kind of the problem," said Megan Pentz, 21, a senior and art major from Hartford, Conn.
Even the Scottie Dog, often clad in a plaid vest, has been depicted in varying ways.
It's all too confusing, Ms. Pentz said.
Her choice? The Tartan because it sounds profound and suggests toughness.
No way, said Pouja Ahuja, 21, a chemical engineering major from Allentown, Pa., who was sitting with her in the University Center.
"Plaid is not tough," she said.
She'd prefer that her school go with the dog.
"It's tangible," she said. "It's something you can be attached to."
For schools with big time sports programs, and all the merchandising that goes with them, the economic stakes become magnified.
Officials at UCLA recently tweaked the official rendering of the school's Bruin mascot to make it look stronger and more aggressive, said Ross Bjork, a senior associate athletic director. He said revenue from branded UCLA merchandise, from golf shirts and lapel pins to bumper stickers and ball caps, tops $13 million, netting UCLA $1 million a year in royalties.
Schools closer to home such as the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State University are equally careful with their icons, which are seen often in national publications and on ESPN.
"It's about the connection. 'I'm a Panther. I'm Nittany Lion,' It's another way of having people become attracted to their university," Mr. Bjork said.
Sometimes, though, that attraction can turn hostile.
At Florida State University, a mascot fight almost wound up in court. The school and its nickname "Seminoles" were among 18 schools with sports names, mascots or images deemed "hostile" and "abusive" to American Indians by the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The organization wanted the name dropped.
Florida State prevailed after a threatened lawsuit, public outcry from supporters and even a vote of confidence from the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
Even at schools whose sports teams aren't national brands, things can still get emotional.
At Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Robert Davies heard from a prospective student so offended by IUP's then-use of "Indians" for its team nickname the man decided to enroll elsewhere.
Others were just as put off by the school's decision to drop the Indian reference and replace it with "Crimson Hawks."
"We got e-mails that said 'I'm an Indian for life. I'm not going to donate any more. I'm not going to send my son or daughter to your school,' " said Mr. Davies, vice president for institutional advancement.
Carnegie Mellon was founded in 1900 by Scottish-born industrialist Andrew Carnegie. The school's heritage is as obvious as its bagpipe major and campus locations that have such names as Skibo Cafe.
Mr. Marano said student athletes initiated the idea for a mascot search more than a year ago, saying an official image might boost interest in the school's teams.
He said settling on a single mascot could make the school's apparel more enticing to off-campus retailers, who prefer a single, recognizable image.
In advance of tonight's 5:30 forum in the University Center's McConomy Auditorium, the school has been soliciting suggestions by e-mail on its Web site.
Whatever the choice is, Carnegie Mellon will have to consider just how the image should be crafted and then take steps to trademark its use, said Jennifer Church, dean of student affairs who co-chairs the Mascot Task Force. The school said the name Tartans will continue to be used, especially in connection with athletics.
Bob Bingham, a professor of art, put the mascot question to his eco-art class last week. The room of 14 women and four men considered Highanders but deemed that image too macho.
He personally favors a right-brain left-brain compromise for a university that prides itself on working across disciplines.
"Go hybrid -- a robotic Scotty dog," he said.Carnegie Mellon University
CMU's Scottie Dog -- A mascot that really isn't.
Bill Schackner can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1977.