After a more than two-hour public hearing Tuesday, state lawmakers will consider legislation to rename Dixie State University as Utah Tech University.
The Utah Legislature’s Education Interim Committee took no vote but met to conduct a hearing on HB2001 before the bill is considered by the respective legislative houses during the special session called by Utah Gov. Spencer Cox.
Dixie State University President Richard “Biff” Williams said the name Utah Tech University, as unanimously recommended by the university trustees and the Utah Board of Higher Education, is “authentic, it’s aspirational and it’s strong. It looks good, it sounds good. It’ll be a great addition to the Utah System of Higher Education. We simply could not ask for a better name.”
But others say changing the name of the university isn’t like “ripping off a Band-Aid. It’s like creating a wound that won’t heal,” said Washington County Commissioner Victor Iverson.
“It is going to be a generational situation where the community will be broken away from the very institution that it has built,” he said.
Iverson said divisions over the university’s name are akin to a “family dispute, because we are close together and we do appreciate each other. But we also disagree.”
Representatives of several technology companies headquartered in St. George urged lawmakers to pass HB2001.
Gary Stone, associate vice president of Intermountain Precision Genomics, which works closely with the university, said officials travel about the country to teach others how to implement precision medicine in hospitals to treat diseases such as cancer.
“When we go to Harvard every fall to present on how to do that and we demonstrate the work that we’re doing, the room’s ecstatic that we are in St. George” given the proximity to national parks and the caliber of the science and technology that precision medicine employs.
“When they ask us who our partner university is, we say Dixie State University, and it always takes the air out of the room,” Stone said.
But others, like Stephanie Grant, a Dixie State alumnus who was an All-American basketball player, told the committee that she spent considerable time with a diverse group of athletes while attending college. “Not one time did I ever heard someone talk about our university being a racist university,” she said.
The move to change the name would cancel the university’s history, she said. The effort is fueled by a critical race theory movement that prompts people to “look for racism every direction they can,” Grant said.
Two speakers offered a compromise name, St. George State University, akin to San Diego State University.
Earlier this year, the Legislature passed HB278, which called for an extensive public process with respect to the university’s name. It appropriated $500,000 to create a heritage committee to help preserve the institution’s history provided the DSU board of trustees and Utah Board of Higher Education recommended to lawmakers a name that did not include Dixie.
HB2001 calls on the university to report to the Education Interim Committee on the heritage committee before November 2022.
With the Legislature preparing for pivotal votes on the university’s name, the Defending Southwestern Utah Heritage Coalition issued an “urgent call to action” to members to contact lawmakers urging them to vote against the name change.
It also recommends on its website that opponents to the name change tell lawmakers that “Utah Tech has become a laughing matter across the state! Plus, it does not fulfill the mandate by the Legislature because it does not list the actual ‘geographical region.’ It is bland, generic and a major step backwards for our university and our community!”
The upcoming votes come eight months after lawmakers passed HB278, which, as originally drafted, called on the DSU board of trustees, in consultation with the Utah Board of Higher Education, to select and recommend a name for the institution and, if the boards choose, forward the name to the Legislature.
The bill sailed through a House committee and passed handily in the House but stalled in the Senate amid complaints the process had been rushed, that many residents in southern Utah did not support a name change and that changing the name was tantamount to cancel culture. An amended bill established expectations for a public process to further study and discuss the university’s name with the community.
Former DSU trustee Julie Beck, who chaired the trustees’ name recommendation committee and who has described the public vetting as an “exhaustive pursuit,” said the process started with “what I call listening with a vengeance.”
Beck said she has been involved with global organizations for many years and has overseen many complex and important projects.
“However, there’s nothing I have participated in during my life that I feel better about than the process which was undertaken to fulfill HB278. The process you outlined in the legislation was followed exactly, and it allowed the committee to look beyond snap judgments, personal opinions and powerful emotions, and provided a direct path to an extremely well-thought-out decision,” Beck said.
But others, like St. George attorney Tim Anderson, said the decisions have relied on a study by the Cicero Group commissioned by the university that had focus groups examine conduct and events that occurred several decades ago.
“That’s when there were about 5,100 to 7,100 people in St. George. Now there’s like about 95,000 so you didn’t get a current perception” or data that reflects current-day perceptions of the university, he said.
“When that happened, that triggered the problem. What blew up the community is when the university with its agents went out and implicated racism with impunity,” he said. “We resent it. We think the university should back off.”
As for creating a tech school, “we’re all for that. But it’s not a tech school at this point. It doesn’t have enough programs in that area,” Anderson said, suggesting that the university should instead create a polytechnic institute. “But you don’t change the whole thing. I would suggest you look at it that way.”
The institution has had seven name changes since it was established in 1911, each with Dixie except for its inaugural name, St. George Stake Academy, according to a university website.
The Cicero Group study that considered the impacts of the Dixie name found that it had become “increasingly problematic for our students and alumni” due to racial connotations, and it has hindered the university’s ability to recruit students, faculty and staff. Moreover, it has limited its ability to build partnerships and obtain grants and funding.”
Discussions about the name have been going on for 30 years but intensified after protests across the country following George Floyd’s murder last summer while in police custody, according to DSU President Williams.
“It’s all tied around the ties to the Confederacy. It first started with the Confederate flag, went to a Rebel nickname and to the mascot. Every president that had preceded me has had something that they’ve had to change. We haven’t changed the right thing, which is going to be the name of the institution,” Williams said.
In January, Intermountain Healthcare changed the name of its hospital in Washington County from Dixie Regional Medical Center to Intermountain St. George Regional Hospital.
The nation’s social justice reckoning also prompted the country music group formerly known as the Dixie Chicks to change its name to “The Chicks.”